Enter Captain Francis S. Low. Hailing from the U.S. Naval Academy class of 1915, Low had been a submariner since World War I. But he had served on the staff of Admiral Ernest J. King for more than a year and was able to think out of the box. During a trip to Norfolk, Virginia, he saw Army bombers practicing attacks on the chalked outline of a carrier deck. It proved an inspiration.
The joint bug bit hard: here was a submariner conceiving the idea of launching Army bombers from a Navy ship to strike the heart of the Japanese Empire. Low hustled back to Washington, D.C., determined to sell the idea to Admiral King, then-commander-in-chief, U.S. Fleet.
King was a rarity, qualified in both aviation and submarines. He respected Low's opinion and said, "You may have something there." He instructed the operations officer to discuss the prospect with Captain Donald B. "Wu" Duncan, King's aviation authority. 1 Duncan saw prospects as well as problems. If twin-engine bombers were to launch from a carrier, obviously they could not return to land aboard ship, so the mission would be a one-way trip. The bombers—Army aircraft—would have to land in friendly or neutral territory or be sacrificed, presumably with the crews rescued.
Still, the prospects of attacking Japan were exciting. A successful mission, perhaps against Tokyo itself, would accomplish at least two goals. It would force Japan to pull back forces from combat zones to defend the homeland, and more important, it would spike American morale at a time when good news was damnably scarce. Duncan investigated and wrote an analysis, concluding that the job could be done.
Informed of the emerging plan, Admiral King was supportive. He ordered his staffers to approach General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, inviting the chief of the Army Air Forces to contact King if he wished to pursue the matter. Amid continuing secrecy, the Navy men briefed General Arnold in mid January, and the Army officer immediately consented.
At that point the First Special Aviation Project officially became a joint operation, equally dependent on the Army and the Navy.
From Plan to Reality
Events accelerated. By month's end General Arnold had detailed three North American B-25 crews to conduct practical experiments, taking off from the USS Hornet (CV-8) based at Norfolk, Virginia. Her paint was hardly dry: she had only been commissioned in October 1941, and was still working up prior to joining the Atlantic Fleet.
On 2 February, First Lieutenants John Fitzgerald's and James McCarthy's bombers were spotted on the Hornet 's deck off the Virginia coast. They had satisfied themselves in tests ashore that they could get their lightly loaded Mitchells off the ship in the available space. Needing 70-mile-per-hour airspeed to lift off, the B-25s enjoyed a relative wind equal to 45 mph, and both Mitchells got airborne after short deck runs. Duncan, who had observed the process, immediately returned to Washington with the good news. Army bombers could take off from a carrier. 2
A few days previously, General Arnold had tossed the Army football to Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle, a longtime colleague and the general's chief troubleshooter. Jimmy Doolittle was arguably the greatest pilot of his generation. He had done nearly everything possible in aviation, from earning an aeronautics Ph.D. to performing the first outside loop and making the first instrument landing. Arnold informed Doolittle of the plan, saying that the lieutenant colonel, a champion racer, would coordinate with Captain Duncan as his naval counterpart.
Bring on the B-25s
Independently, Doolittle and Duncan had determined that the B-25 was the best airplane for the mission. In fact, it was the only airplane. The Army's other medium bombers were incapable of getting off the deck in 500 feet or lacked the required 2,000-mile range.
Doolittle, well known as a master of the calculated risk, applied equal parts of his scientific brain and aviator's instincts. After consulting with Air Corps engineers, he provided for 24 B-25Bs to be modified to mission standards—mainly additional fuel tanks. Meanwhile, Duncan proceeded with coordination of the naval aspects.
Security was tight from the start and remained so. Within a few days of departure, only six officers knew the full plan. Not even the Hornet 's skipper, Captain Marc Mitscher, was fully briefed until shortly before deploying.
The Army crews came from the 17th Bomb Group, previously flying out of Pendleton Army Air Field in northeastern Oregon. Most of the pilots were "junior birdmen." Of the 16 bombers deployed, 12 were flown by first or second lieutenants. Doolittle and Major John Hilger were the only fliers with ranks above captain.
Navy Lieutenant Henry Miller instructed the Army fliers in carrier procedures during essential interservice training at Eglin Field, Florida. On a remote outlying airstrip, the Mitchell crews learned how to coax a B-25 into the air at minimum airspeed, laden with four tons of fuel and ordnance. After enough crews had performed to Miller's standards to provide some spares, the entire organization flew cross-country to San Francisco.
The Doolittle Raiders
Meanwhile, on 4 March the Hornet proceeded to the West Coast to rendezvous with the Army men—the 80 fliers who would forever be known as the Doolittle Raiders. The carrier arrived at San Francisco on the 20th, with a semi-final briefing held on the 30th. In the bar of the Fairmont Hotel, Vice Admiral William F. Halsey met with Duncan, Doolittle, and Halsey's chief of staff, Captain Miles Browning. As task force commander riding the USS Enterprise (CV-6), Halsey had overall responsibility for the mission.
The 16 B-25s were craned aboard at Alameda, and the ship headed west two days later. Well into the Pacific on 12 April, the Hornet task group rendezvoused with Halsey's Enterprise and her screen several hundred miles north of Midway. "The Big E's" aircraft would conduct most of the scouting and combat air patrol until the Army bombers were launched, as the Hornet 's deck was necessarily locked.
Approaching Japan on 18 April, Japanese picket boats sighted the American ships, prompting the B-25s to launch 200 miles farther from their targets than planned. But when Doolittle gunned his Mitchell down the Hornet 's rain-swept deck, he cleared the bow with room to spare.
The rest of the story is well known: How the bombers struck Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe, Nagoya, and Osaka and got away clean. How they ran out of fuel after 13 hours in the air, one diverting to Soviet territory and the others crashing along the China coast. How six Raiders perished, including four as prisoners of Japan. How Doolittle returned to wild acclaim, receiving the Medal of Honor—an award he accepted reluctantly and only then on behalf of his men. 3
Though it inflicted minimal damage on Japan, the First Special Aviation Project proved a major success. It destroyed Tokyo's aura of invincibility and boosted America's morale as nothing else could. It also demonstrated that a healthy relationship was possible between the Army and Navy, despite the services' often bitter rivalry.
However, the Doolittle raid was not the last such collaboration between the Navy and the Army Air Forces, with the Navy even later working with foreign air arms.
Jointness in the Med
An even more joint operation occurred in the Mediterranean immediately after the Tokyo raid. On 20 April 1942, the USS Wasp (CV-7) ferried 47 Royal Air Force Spitfires to Malta, providing badly needed reinforcements for the beleaguered garrison there. All but one arrived at the island, which was subjected to almost daily attack by Axis bombers.
Among the RAF pilots on board the Wasp was Texan Reade Tilley, a big, strapping Eagle Squadron pilot who would achieve ace-dom on Malta. When Tilley expressed concern about taking off from a carrier without previous experience, his squadron leader replied, "Laddie, there's no point practicing that which must be performed perfectly the first time." 4
On 9 May, in company with HMS Eagle , the Wasp returned to Malta, embarking 64 Spitfires, 60 of which reached their destination. But not without some drama: a Canadian, Pilot Officer J. A. Smith, lost his drop tank after takeoff. Given the choice of bailing out or attempting a landing, he tried for the deck. The Wasp 's landing signal officer was Lieutenant David McCampbell, who had briefed the British pilots on carrier procedures. The first pass looked good, but Smith was too fast and received a wave-off. He went around for another try. Decades later, McCampbell said, "He was still a little fast on the second pass so I cut him long." Giving the "chop" signal sooner than normal, McCampbell judged it nicely. Smith got his Spitfire on the deck and stood on the brakes. Incredibly, he lurched to a stop less than 15 feet from the forward deck edge. Having been carrier qualified, he received naval aviator's wings that evening. 5
More inter-American work was conducted by the USS Ranger (CV-4), which delivered 68 Curtiss P-40s to the Gold Coast of Africa on 10 May. All the Warhawks got off the deck and set course for the China-Burma-India Theater. The Ranger continued delivering Army aircraft, with four more trips over the next eight months.
Meanwhile, another Army-Navy exercise attended Operation Torch, the invasion of French Morocco in November 1942. The ship was the USS Chenango (ACV-28) one of the early escort (then called "auxiliary") carriers, commissioned only five months before. The converted oiler ferried the entire 33rd Fighter Group, as the ship's crew shoehorned all three squadrons—72 P-40Fs—onto the flight and hangar decks.
One of the Army pilots spoke for most when he lauded the Sailors, describing Captain Ben H. Wyatt as "gracious and attentive to our needs." Unfortunately, the group commander exhibited little interservice acumen, stating that he could not wait to get ashore "and show the Navy how to fight." Colonel William W. Momyer later became a four-star general. 6
The first fighters were catapulted off the short deck the morning of the 10th, but damage to Port Lyautey's airfield forced a delay, requiring the ship to keep the Warhawks on board for two days. Several fighters were damaged in landing amid the shell holes, and none was able to fly combat sorties before the Vichy surrender.
More than two years after the Doolittle Raid, Army aircraft again launched from carrier decks into Pacific combat. Close on the heels of the Saipan landing in June 1944 was a joint operation featuring a new generation of flattops. On the 22nd, the escort carrier USS Natoma Bay (CVE-62) catapulted 24 P-47 Thunderbolts of the 19th Fighter Squadron off her 550-foot deck from 60 miles out. They landed ashore that morning, providing close air support from newly won Aslito airfield. Four hours after arrival, the squadron was firing rockets at Japanese positions on nearby Tinian.
The next day Japanese aircraft found the escort carrier group. Two Aichi dive bombers attacked the USS Manila Bay (CVE-61), dropping bombs wide to port. Lacking naval fighter protection, the Manila Bay launched four P-47s on combat air patrol while the Natoma Bay dispatched 12 more "Jugs" of the 73rd Squadron. The CAP flight orbited until the radar screens cleared, then followed the dozen other fighters to Saipan.
On the 24th, the Manila Bay sent off her remaining aircraft, shortly followed by the 333rd Squadron from the USS Sargent Bay (CVE-83). Thus, by month's end three escort carriers had delivered the entire 318th Fighter Group directly into combat.
Carriers continued delivering Army aircraft to forward areas throughout the war, but seldom if ever again under fire. However, a unique evolution occurred stateside in November 1944, testing "navalized" Army aircraft. Ironically—or appropriately—it involved a B-25H (naval designation PBJ-1H) capable of landing on a carrier. A modified P-51D also was launched and recovered aboard the new Essex -class carrier, the USS Shangri-La (CV-38), determining the feasibility of operating Army fighters and bombers at sea. The "Seahorse" version of the Mustang was conceived as a long-range escort fighter, but the concept was overtaken by events as land bases were conquered.
The joint operations of World War II remain an example for current Navy and Air Force units, which are increasingly reliant on one another. After the premature demise of the A-6 Intruder, long-range carrier strikes now require Air Force tanker support, while SEALs and Marines direct Air Force fighter-bomber pilots.
Ernie King and Hap Arnold would approve.
Mr. Tillman is the author of numerous books and articles on military aviation topics, including Clash of the Carriers: The True Story of the Marianas Turkey Shoot of World War II (New York: New American Library, 2005).
1. Norman Polmar, Aircraft Carriers, Volume I (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2006), p. 202. back to article
2. In fact, twin-engine aircraft had flown from carriers before the war, but that fact was unknown to the Tokyo raid planners. In 1939 a Lockeed XJO-3 had launched from the USS Lexington (CV-2), proving the concept of not only twin-engined but nosewheel types. back to article
3. Interview with Gen James H. Doolittle, USAF (Ret.), Los Angeles, 1977. Doolittle believed that the Medal of Honor should only be awarded for saving the lives of comrades in combat. He considered shooting down enemy aircraft and bombing assigned targets "merely doing one's job." back to article
4. Interview with Col Reade Tilley, USAF (Ret), October 1990. back to article
5. Subsequently, Jerry Smith disappeared chasing Luftwaffe bombers near Malta. In 1991 the author had the pleasure of introducing McCampbell to Smith's older brother Rod, himself a Malta ace. back to article
6. Daniel B. Rathbun, www.portlyautey.com/Rathbun.htm  . back to article