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Norfolk to Tokyo: The Birth of the Doolittle Raid


Norfolk to Tokyo: The Birth of the Doolittle Raid

The idea for the Doolittle Raid came about at a Norfolk training area and a discussion between Captain Francis Low and Admiral Ernest J. King of the U.S. Fleet.

The idea for the Doolittle Raid came about at a Norfolk training area and a discussion between Captain Francis Low and Admiral Ernest J. King of the U.S. Fleet.

by John Wukovits

President Franklin D. Roosevelt sat in his White House study, an aging leader suddenly appearing older and wearier. Only moments before, the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, had informed him that much of the Pacific Fleet stationed in Hawaii now rested on Pearl Harbor’s bottom. Carrier aircraft from Japan had executed a devastating surprise blow to the U.S. military. Doubt and disbelief blanketed Roosevelt’s face.

The Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, could see the anger and dismay. “It was obvious to me that Roosevelt was having a dreadful time just accepting the idea that the Navy could be caught unawares,” she recalled.

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The leader who had lifted the nation’s morale in the bleakest days of the Depression quickly rallied. With fire in his eyes and determination ringing in his words, Roosevelt vowed to gather the remaining forces and fight on until America’s factories could produce the weapons needed for the United States to emerge victorious from the conflict. As he wrote British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, “We must constantly look forward to the next moves that need to be made to hit the enemy.”

He wanted one of those moves to target the Japanese homeland. Roosevelt believed that such a strike would not only inflict a stunning blow to the enemy, but would also boost American morale at a time when it most needed a lift. Almost daily, Roosevelt prodded his top military leaders into finding some way to take the war directly to the Japanese.

An Idea Drawn from Norfolk

He had his answer by January 10, 1942. Captain Francis S. Low, a member of the staff of Admiral Ernest J. King, the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Fleet, mentioned the revolutionary idea to King of bombing Japan by launching bombers from aircraft carriers. As he took off from a Norfolk, Va. airfield, he explained, “I saw the outline of a carrier deck painted on an airfield which is used to give our pilots practice taking off from a short distance. I saw some Army twin-engine planes making bombing passes at this simulated carrier deck at the same time.” Low put the two ideas together and rushed to King’s office once he landed in Washington, DC. He knew that bombers possessed the required range that fighters did not, and if carriers could take them close enough, they might be able to lift off and bomb Tokyo.

King liked the idea and ordered Low to discuss it with other top officers. By late January a tentative plan had been drawn up, and the head of the Army Air Corps, General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, called to his office the man he had selected to organize the operation.

Enter James “Jimmy” Doolittle

Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle’s place in aviation history had already been assured by the time World War II erupted. A veteran test pilot, Doolittle established numerous flight records in the 1920s, including becoming the first pilot to cross North America in less than 24 hours. Arnold often sought his counsel in aviation matters, and he now asked the veteran pilot, “Jim, what airplane do we have that can take off in 500 feet, carry a 2,000-pound bomb load, and fly 2,000 miles with a full crew?” As Doolittle thought, Arnold added that the aircraft should be able to take off in a space only 75 feet wide. Doolittle responded that only one such plane existed—the North American B-25 Mitchell medium bomber.

Arnold then divulged the details of the mission he wanted planned. Army bombers would take off from aircraft carriers, bomb Japan, then fly on to airfields held by friendly Chinese forces under the command of General Chiang Kai-shek. He stressed that Doolittle was too valuable in Washington for him to actually lead the operation, but he wanted Doolittle to supervise its planning. Doolittle agreed and left to begin piecing together the mission.

Mission Planning: “They’ll Need a Lot of Luck”

Thousands of miles from Washington, DC, Admiral William F. Halsey walked into a room at the Pacific Fleet’s headquarters in Hawaii for a meeting with Rear Adm. Donald B. Duncan. Duncan informed Halsey of the daring Doolittle operation and asked if Halsey felt the plan could work. The aggressive carrier leader, known for never shrinking from any challenge, agreed it might be possible, but added, “They’ll need a lot of luck.” He then agreed to take the bombers within range and launch them against the enemy.

Halsey subsequently met with Doolittle to discuss the mission. They agreed that Halsey would transport the Army bombers to within 400 miles of Japan unless discovered before reaching that takeoff point. In that event, they would launch for an attack if they were still within range of Tokyo and had enough fuel to later ditch at sea. If they were discovered outside the range of attack, the bombers would be flown to either Midway or Hawaii, or if not in range of any land bases be shoved overboard so the carrier Hornet’s flight deck could be used by its complement of fighters.

Doolittle’s Surprise for Chief of Staff

On March 3, 1942, Doolittle met with close to 140 pilots and crew members at Eglin Field in Florida. The men had volunteered to train with Doolittle even without knowing the details of the mission, and Doolittle could not divulge much more. He explained that the mission for which they had volunteered “will be the most dangerous thing any of you have ever done. Any man can drop out and nothing will ever be said about it.” He cautioned against discussing their work with anyone, even among themselves, and that “the lives of many young men are going to depend on how well you keep this project to yourselves.”

While the group practiced launching bombers from restricted distances for the remainder of the month, Doolittle tried to change Hap Arnold’s mind about his exclusion from leading the bombers to Japan. Doolittle was supervising the most exciting U.S. mission yet to come out of the war, and he was not about to be pushed to the sidelines after training. He met with Arnold in mid-March, when Arnold agreed that if his chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Millard F. Harmon, Jr., assented to Doolittle’s participation, he would also.

Arnold never intended to permit Doolittle to go along and only answered in this manner to get him off his back. He planned to communicate over a squawk box with his chief of staff and tell him not to give the flier permission before Doolittle walked down to his office, but Doolittle sensed what Arnold was doing. He raced over to Harmon’s office before Arnold had a chance to call, told Harmon that Arnold said it was all right for him to go on the mission as long as Harmon thought it was fine, and received permission. As Doolittle left, he heard Arnold’s angry voice over the squawk box admonishing his chief of staff.

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