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Sullivan's Corner: Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo

By Austin Sullivan
On April 20, 2012


This Wednesday marks the 70th anniversary of one of the most daring operations in American history. On April 18th, 1942, Task Force 16 steamed towards Japan. The nucleus of the Task Force was the carriers USS Hornet (CV-8) and USS Enterprise (CV-6). Aboard the Hornet were 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers from the USAAF (United States Army Air Force). Led by Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle, they were to be launched 400 miles off the coast of Japan. The Task Force was spotted; however, by Japanese picket boats while they were still 650 miles away.

Admiral William "Bull" Halsey, aboard the Enterprise, realized that the element of surprise was lost. Sinking the picket boats, he ordered Captain Marc Mitscher of the Hornet and Doolittle to launch immediately. All 16 B-25s safely made the take off, and headed towards Japan while Halsey swung the Task Force back to Pearl Harbor. Coming either in singles or in small groups, Doolittle's bombers struck targets in Tokyo and other locations such as Yokosuka. The raid met little opposition, as Japanese High Command assumed the carriers would launch closer.

Having launched earlier than anticipated, the B-25s were forced to fly into China after dark. When their fuel was exhausted, many airmen bailed out, or ditched in the sea. One B-25 suffered a fuel leak and was forced to land in Vladivostok, where the crew was interned for over a year. Three of the flyers were killed in ditching. Eight more were captured by the Japanese, with four of them dying through disease or execution.

In terms of material damage, the raid accomplished little. The strength of the Japanese was not diminished in the slightest. It would take the Battle of Midway (June 1942), and the Guadalcanal campaign (August 1942 to February 1943) for the Allies to take the offensive.

The raid, however, was a great psychological victory for the United States. At that point, the Japanese Empire had steamrolled across the Pacific. Following their success at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had taken U.S. territories such as Guam, Wake Island, and the Philippines (Bataan early April 1942, Corregidor would fall in May). The Japanese also captured Hong Kong from the British Empire in December, along with Singapore in February. The Dutch East Indies were also captured by the Japanese, with the combined ABDA (American British Dutch Australian) naval command losing the Battle of the Java Sea (February 27th-March 1st). The raid bolstered American morale at a time when the Japanese appeared unstoppable. For his conduct, Doolittle was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

As it now has been 70 years since the raid, I would ask all of you to give a moment of silence and gratitude for these courageous men, many of who have passed on. I would also like all of you to give a moment of silence for the Chinese, who helped the raiders escape. Close to a quarter million Chinese would be killed by the Japanese Army following the raid in reprisal.

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