The Navy Targets Tokyo

By James M. Scott

“Everything okay, Colonel.” 1

The signal officer dropped the flag and Doolittle released the brakes. The bomber roared down the flight deck at 0820. 2 Doolittle passed 50 feet, then 100. Then 200.

“He’ll never make it,” someone on deck shouted. 3 The bomber charged toward the end of the flight deck and then appeared to vanish. “Doolittle’s gone,” Lieutenant Charles McClure, one of the Army navigators, thought to himself. “We’ll have to make it without him.” 4

The bomber then roared up and into the gray skies over the bow. “Yes!” fellow pilot Lieutenant Richard Knobloch shouted. “Yes!” 5

Sailors crowded along the flight deck and carrier’s island erupted in cheers. “The shout that went up should have been heard in Tokyo,” Lieutenant Thomas White, the mission’s doctor, remembered. “We were all yelling and pounding each other on the back. I don’t think there was a sound pair of vocal cords in the flotilla.” 6

Doolittle’s successful takeoff from the Hornet—followed at 3.9-minute intervals by 15 other Army bombers—would begin the now legendary mission to pummel Tokyo and the industrial cities of Yokohama, Kobe, and Nagoya. The raid would have far-reaching consequences, prompting the furious Japanese to make an ill-fated grab for Midway in June 1942, a disastrous move that would cost them four aircraft carriers and shift the balance of power in the Pacific in favor of America.

Throughout the more than seven decades since that day, history has often focused on the heroic role of Doolittle and his airmen. Overlooked is the fact that much of the planning, risk, and sacrifice was borne by the Navy. The service played a vital role in every step of the mission, from the raid’s inception to the training of the Army airmen to the selection of vital targets and intelligence provided on board the Hornet .

More important is the incredible risk the Navy took to carry Doolittle and his 79 volunteers on a 5,223-mile journey across the Pacific and into the enemy’s backyard. The raid demanded two carriers, four cruisers, eight destroyers, and two oilers plus the lives of some 10,000 sailors. So dangerous was the risk to America’s armada that bomber crews en route to Tokyo used axes to hack apart drained five-gallon gasoline cans before dropping them into the ocean, a move designed to guarantee the cans would immediately sink and not serve as a trail back to the escaping carriers.

Birth of an Operation

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the Sunday morning of 7 December 1941 had battered the Pacific Fleet. Before rescuers could pluck all of the dead from the oily Hawaiian waters, President Franklin Roosevelt summoned his senior military leaders and demanded America find a way to strike back—not an attack against a far-flung island in the Japanese Empire, but a raid against Tokyo. “The president was insistent,” the Army Air Forces chief, Lieutenant General Henry “Hap” Arnold, later wrote, “that we find ways and means of carrying home to Japan proper, in the form of a bombing raid, the real meaning of war.” 7

The attack Roosevelt envisioned, however, far exceeded the capabilities of the American military. In the opening weeks of the war, Japan had steamrolled across Asia and the Pacific, establishing a defensive perimeter that stretched thousands of miles beyond its homeland and robbing the United States of any airfield in the region from which to launch such an attack. While flattops could steam close to Japan, the relatively short range of the Navy’s carrier-based planes exposed America’s precious few carriers to an extraordinary risk from the enemy’s shore-based bombers. Such a raid seemed impossible.

That stalemate changed when Captain Francis Low knocked on U.S. Fleet commander Admiral Ernest King’s door on the evening of 10 January 1942. King’s operations officer had spent much of his career in the undersea service before he landed on the admiral’s staff. Low had what he later described as a “foolish idea,” but given the dark early days of the war he thought it was at least worth a mention. 8 The captain had just returned from Norfolk, where he had observed planes practicing takeoffs on an airfield marked up to resemble a carrier deck. “If the Army has some plane that could take off in that short distance,” Low asked King, “why couldn’t we put a few of them on a carrier and bomb the mainland of Japan? Might even bomb Tokyo.”

Low waited for the notoriously irascible admiral to brush him off—or worse—but to his surprise King leaned back in his chair. “Low,” he finally answered, “that might be a good idea. Discuss it with Duncan and tell him to report to me.” 9

Low immediately phoned Captain Donald Duncan, King’s air operations officer, and arranged for the two of them to meet the next morning. A fellow U.S. Naval Academy graduate, Duncan held a master’s degree from Harvard. He had served as navigator in the carrier Saratoga (CV-3), executive officer of Naval Air Station Pensacola, and later commanded the first escort carrier, the Long Island (CVE-1).

“There are two big questions that have to be answered first,” Low explained. “Can an Army medium bomber land aboard a carrier? Can a land-based bomber loaded down with bombs, gas, and crew take off from a carrier deck?”

Duncan considered the questions, explaining that a carrier deck was too short for a bomber to land. Furthermore, the fragile tail would never handle the shock of the arresting gear nor would landing bombers fit on the aircraft elevator.

“And my second question?” Low pressed.

“I’ll have to get back to you.” 10

Duncan started right away, searching for what, if any, bomber could handle such an operation. Low had initially suggested the bombers might return to the carrier and ditch in the water, though Duncan’s study showed it would be better if the planes could fly on to airfields in China. Since intelligence indicated that Japanese patrol planes flew as far as 300 miles offshore, America would need a bomber that could launch well outside that range, strike Tokyo, and still have enough fuel to reach the mainland. Duncan reviewed the performance data of various Army bombers before settling on the B-25 Mitchell. Not only would its wings likely clear the island, but with modified fuel tanks the B-25 could handle the 2,400-mile range and still carry a large bomb load.

Duncan next turned to ships. The Pacific Fleet had just four flattops: the Enterprise (CV-6), Lexington (CV-2), Yorktown (CV-5), and Saratoga . But Duncan had another carrier in mind—the new 19,800-ton Hornet , undergoing shakedown in Virginia. He knew she would report to the Pacific at about the time it would take to finalize such an operation. Low had recommended the use of a single carrier, but Duncan realized the mission would require two. With the cumbersome bombers crowding the Hornet ’s flight deck, a second flattop would have to accompany the task force to provide fighter coverage, along with more than a dozen cruisers, destroyers, and oilers. Lastly, a check of historical data revealed a likely window of favorable weather over Tokyo from mid-April to mid-May.

When Duncan concluded his preliminary study, he and Low presented the results to King. The aggressive admiral liked what he heard. “Go see General Arnold about it, and if he agrees with you, ask him to get in touch with me,” King ordered. “And don’t you two mention this to another soul!” 11

Test Flights & Carrier Training

Arnold jumped at the idea, assigning his staff troubleshooter, Doolittle, to oversee the Army Air Forces’ role in the raid, including the modification of the bombers to include three added fuel tanks. Doolittle and Duncan both agreed that the B-25 was the only suitable bomber, but the question remained whether one could, in fact, take off from a carrier. On the frigid Sunday afternoon of 1 February 1942, Duncan reported to the Hornet , moored alongside Pier 7 at Norfolk Naval Operating Base.

Arnold’s staff had ordered three B-25s with the “best combat crews available” to report to Norfolk no later than 20 January; “Airplanes will have combat equipment installed, less bombs.” 12 The plan called for the first B-25 to take off carrying only a full load of gas. The second bomber would then roar down the flight deck with a medium load, followed lastly by a fully loaded plane: “Successive take-offs will, of course, be gauged by the preceding ones.” 13 A burned-out engine on the eve of the test had sidelined one of the bombers. In following Admiral King’s order for secrecy, the Hornet ’s deck log contains no record of the bombers being hoisted aboard.

The following morning, as a light snow began to fall, the Hornet slipped out of port escorted by the destroyers Ludlow (DD-438) and Hilary P. Jones (DD-427).

First up was Army Lieutenant John Fitzgerald Jr., who released the brakes and charged down the flight deck at 1327. Duncan watched nervously as the B-25 stubbornly remained on deck. Just a few feet before the edge of the deck the bomber finally climbed into the skies. The experience felt much different for Fitzgerald in the cockpit. “When I got the signal to go, I let the brakes off and was airborne almost immediately,” he later recalled. “The wing of my plane rose so fast I was afraid I’d strike the ship’s ‘island’ over the flight deck. But I missed it.” 14

Lieutenant James McCarthy went next. He throttled up the B-25’s engines, released the brakes, and roared into the skies, this time in just 275 feet. The Hornet returned to port and Duncan hurried back to Washington, thrilled his calculations were correct. “There was a six foot clearance between the wing tip and the island,” he wrote in a two-page memo to Admiral King. “This did not seem to bother the pilots, as both airplanes maintained perfectly straight courses on the take-off run and appeared to be under excellent control.” Duncan reported that the Hornet could carry between 15 and 20 bombers, depending on whether the Navy wanted to leave enough deck space to operate a possible squadron of fighters. King reviewed the memo, scrawling a single word of approval across the bottom in pencil: “Excellent.” 15

Doolittle meanwhile had arranged for his volunteer airmen—drawn from several squadrons with the 17th Bombardment Group in Pendleton, Oregon—to train at Eglin Field in the Florida Panhandle. In advance of the airmen’s arrival, the Army had likewise reached out to the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics: “It is requested that a Naval aviator, experienced in the art of taking heavily loaded airplanes off from the deck of a carrier, be available at Eglin Field, Valparaiso, Florida, from March 1 to March 15, for the purpose of instructing Army pilots in this art.” 16

The Navy had answered that request with Lieutenant Henry Miller, a former Saratoga pilot who worked as a flight instructor and personnel officer at Naval Air Station Ellyson Field near Pensacola. Over several weeks, Miller drilled Doolittle’s men. “It became an intense competition to see who could take off in the shortest distance with the greatest load,” recalled Lieutenant William Bower, one of the raid’s pilots. “The only weight we had for the airplane was .50 caliber ammunition in boxes, and people, so one man would make his attempt and record the distance, and then we’d all climb in the next airplane and load it up a little more, and see whether we could best that distance.” 17

Final Planning

As Miller wrapped up the airmen’s training, Duncan flew to Pearl Harbor to see Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Chester Nimitz on 19 March. The sole record of Duncan’s secret visit was the terse notation in Nimitz’s “Gray Book,” the admiral’s detailed operational diary: “arrived for conference.” The audacious operation existed only in the form of a handwritten plan, one so secretive that Duncan refused to allow even his trusted secretary to type it. “I had been told by Admiral King to tell Admiral Nimitz that this was not a proposal made for him to consider but a plan to be carried out by him,” Duncan recalled. “So that cleared up any matter of whether we should do it or not; it was on the books by then.” 18

Nimitz understood the incredible risk involved in a raid against Tokyo—his own staff had even proposed and then nixed just such an idea in February. Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Philippines had wrecked two of America’s three fleets. Even with the addition of the Hornet, the backbone of America’s Pacific defense rested on just five aircraft carriers, half the number Japan counted. Two of America’s five Pacific carriers—the flattops Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto so hungered to destroy—would steam to within 400 miles of the enemy’s homeland.

The opportunities for disaster were numerous. This strike force would have to thread its way across the Pacific in complete radio silence, avoiding the constellations of Japanese bases that stretched from the Marianas to New Guinea. Enemy fighters, bombers, and reconnaissance planes crowded the skies, while warships, patrol craft, and submarines plowed the Pacific waters, any one of which could jeopardize the mission.

But as Duncan had made clear, Nimitz had no choice. The mission was a go. He asked Vice Admiral William “Bull” Halsey Jr. if he thought the operation would succeed.

“They’ll need a lot of luck,” Halsey replied.

Nimitz then asked if Halsey was willing to lead the task force.

“Yes, I am.”

“Good,” Nimitz replied. “It’s all yours!” 19

On the eve of the task force’s departure, Halsey flew to San Francisco to review the operation with Doolittle. During the three-hour conference on 30 March, in a room at the luxurious Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill, Halsey and Duncan walked Doolittle through the Navy’s plan. The submarines Trout (SS-202) and Thresher (SS-200) would scout weather conditions and search out enemy naval forces the surface ships might encounter. The Hornet , two cruisers, four destroyers, and an oiler would depart Alameda on 2 April as Task Force 16.2 under the command of Captain Marc Mitscher. After flying back to Pearl Harbor, Halsey would put to sea on 7 April in command of Task Force 16.1, consisting of the carrier Enterprise , plus another two cruisers, four destroyers, and a second oiler. The two task forces would rendezvous at sea on 12 April to create Task Force 16. These 16 warships would then steam toward Tokyo, refueling some 800 miles from Japan. At that point the oilers would remain behind while the carriers, cruisers, and destroyers steamed to within 400 miles of the enemy’s capital.

“We discussed the operation from every point of view,” Doolittle recalled. “We tried to think of every contingency that might possibly arise and have an answer to that contingency.” 20 If the task force was within range of Japan, the bombers would immediately take off, execute the mission, and hopefully reach China or get picked up by submarines. If the task force was within range of either Hawaii or Midway, the bombers would take off for those destinations.

The worst-case scenario called for crews to push the B-25s overboard to clear the Hornet ’s deck so the Navy could launch fighters. “This was understandable and I accepted this possibility,” Doolittle wrote. “After all, if the two carriers, the cruisers, and the destroyers were lost, it would mean the end of American naval strength in the Pacific for a long time. The Navy was, therefore, taking an extraordinary risk in our attempt to bring the war to the Japanese homeland.” 21

Intelligence Briefings & Takeoff

The warships pulled anchor one by one the morning of 2 April as a heavy fog hung low over the bay. In a single column separated by a thousand yards, the task force navigated through the gate of the antisubmarine net, then passed beneath the Golden Gate Bridge at 1113, the majestic red symbol of San Francisco that divided the bay from the Pacific. Sailors lined the flight deck as the Hornet headed to sea, a scene captured in the diary of Army engineer-gunner Staff Sergeant George Larkin. “As we passed under the great Golden Gate Bridge,” Larkin wrote, “we wondered if we would see it again.” 22

Once at sea, Navy Lieutenant Stephen Jurika Jr. briefed Doolittle and his men. No one knew the sprawling Japanese capital better than Jurika, who had served as an assistant naval attaché in Tokyo in the years before the war (see “ Letters from the Precipice of War ,” February 2014, pp. 54–58). Jurika had spent much of that time preparing target maps. “As an aviator I was interested in more than just ships,” he recalled. “I became interested in targets.” 23

Oil depots, chemical plants, and blast furnaces. The industrial might that powered a nation and its war machine would prove the Achilles’ heel in a life-and-death struggle—and in Japan’s capital and sprawling suburbs, the studious attaché had found such industry everywhere. “Each time I drove from Tokyo down toward Yokohama, going through the fantastic industrial district of Kawasaki, I would take a different route and go by the petro-chemical factories, the chemical factories, the iron and steel mills, and see for myself where these big things were located, factories that covered hundreds of acres,” Jurika later said. “It was really unending, just one succession of one big factory after another, all the way down.” 24

The two task forces merged on 13 April; Halsey had been delayed by bad weather in his return to Pearl Harbor, setting back his departure. Each new day carried the task force another 400 miles closer to Japan. Radiomen hunched over receivers 24 hours a day, monitoring Tokyo’s commercial stations to decipher news and broadcast routines, while officers and crew manned battle stations at dawn and dusk. Mitscher ran his sailors through countless drills, from gunnery and damage control to abandon-ship exercises. The Navy’s rigorous practice at times irked some of Doolittle’s men. “It seemed to me,” recalled bombardier Sergeant Robert Bourgeois, “that every time I started to sleep or eat that damn General Quarters would sound off.” 25

In the dark predawn morning of 18 April, radarmen began to pick up small Japanese surface craft, part of a picket line that served as an early-warning alarm system in case of an American raid. Halsey ordered the task force to avoid any contact, hoping to prolong a fight as long as possible. Every hour—every mile—now mattered. Hornet lookouts spotted another picket boat at 0738. Radio operators in the 90-ton Nitto Maru No. 23 fired off a message to Tokyo: “Three enemy carriers sighted. Position, 600 nautical miles east of Inubosaki.” 26 The time to fight had arrived.

On board the Enterprise , Halsey gave the order, and the cruiser Nashville (CL-43) opened fire. The feisty admiral flashed a message to the Hornet . “Launch planes,” he ordered. “To Col. Doolittle and gallant command, good luck and God bless you.” 27

While Enterprise aviators and Nashville gunners blasted the Japanese picket boats—all told, the airmen and gunners would destroy several that day—Doolittle and his men hustled to prepare for takeoff. “First bomber off the Hornet . Miraculous,” Chicago Daily News reporter Robert Casey wrote in his diary. “The carrier is diving, deluging deck with white water. The big plane is just about catapulted as the ship lifts out of the sea.” 28 One after the other, the Army airmen followed, climbing into the gray skies. “When the last plane had left there was a physical let down all over the ship,” recalled Ensign Robert Noone, a signal officer. “Everyone was exhausted from the nervous tension of watching them take off. We mentally pushed every plane off the deck.” 29

Doolittle and his men would go on to successfully bomb Tokyo and other key industrial cities that day. Low on fuel, one crew diverted to Russia and was interned. The rest flew on to free China, where because of bad weather and lack of fuel they either bailed out or crash-landed along the coast. Of the 80 airmen, three were killed. The Japanese later caught eight others, ultimately executing three while a fourth starved to death in prison. The remaining four spent 40 months in Japan’s notorious POW camps.

Halsey sat down days after the raid and wrote a personal letter to Doolittle, telling him he felt he deserved no less than the Medal of Honor, which Doolittle in fact later received for his role in the raid. Absent from Halsey’s congratulations—though no doubt equally as important in the success of the raid—was the incredible role the Navy had played in the inception, planning, and execution. “I do not know of any more gallant deed in history than that performed by your squadron, and that it was successful is entirely due to the splendid leadership on your part,” Halsey wrote. “You have struck the hardest blow of the war directly at the enemy’s heart. You have made history.” 30

1. Quentin Reynolds, The Amazing Mr. Doolittle: A Biography of Lieutenant General James H. Doolittle (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1953), 203–4.

2. Exact takeoff times for each bomber can be found in J. H. Doolittle, “Report on the Aerial Bombing of Japan, June 5, 1942,” Box 516, Record Group 18, Central Decimal Files, Oct. 1942–1944, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), College Park, MD.

3. John Field, “With the Task Force,” Life , 3 May 1943, 91.

4. Chas. L. McClure as told to William Shinnick, “How We Bombed Tokio [sic]: Flyers Locate Targets,” Chicago Daily Tribune , 29 April 1943.

5. Edgar McElroy, “When We Were One: A Doolittle Raider Remembers,” Trinity , July 2010, 29.

6. Thomas White, “Memoirs of ‘Doc’ White, unpublished memoir, 8.

7. H. H. Arnold, Global Mission (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949), 298.

8. F. S. Low memorandum for F. H. Schneider, 16 November 1951, Box 35, Ernest J. King Papers, Library of Congress (LOC), Washington, DC.

9. This exchange comes from Reynolds, The Amazing Mr. Doolittle , 171.

10. This exchange comes from James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, with Carroll V. Glines, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: An Autobiography (New York: Bantam Books, 1991), 234.

11. Ibid., 235.

12. John B. Colley to the Commanding General, Air Force Combat Command, “Carrier Operation Test,” 16 January 1942, Microfilm Roll #115, Henry H. Arnold Papers, LOC.

13. C. E. Duncan to A-3, “Carrier Type of B-25’s,” 13 January 1942, ibid.

14. “Fitzgerald Paved Way for Tokyo Raid,” News and Courier , 16 April 1967.

15. D. B. Duncan memorandum to Ernest King, 4 February 1942, Box 1, Ernest J. King Papers, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC.

16. William W. Dick to Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, 17 February 1942, Iris #2053039, Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA), Montgomery, AL.

17. William Bower oral history interview with Dave Edwards, 27 October 1971, AFHRA.

18. Donald B. Duncan, “Secret Planning for the Tokyo Raid,” in John T. Mason Jr., ed., The Pacific War Remembered: An Oral History Collection (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1986), 68.

19. William F. Halsey and J. Bryan III, Admiral Halsey’s Story (New York: Whittlesey House/McGraw Hill, 1947), 100–1.

20. Reminiscences of General James H. Doolittle, U.S. Air Force (Retired) (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1987), 15–16.

21. Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again , 256.

22. George Larkin diary, 2 April 1942, Papers of George Elmer Larkin Jr., 1918–1942, Filson Historical Society, Louisville, KY.

23. The Reminiscences of Captain Stephen Jurika, Jr., U.S. Navy–Retired (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1979), vol. 1, 387.

24. Ibid., 389.

25. Robert Bourgeois to Ross Greening, Individual Histories questionnaire, undated (ca. 1950), Iris #01010162, AFHRA.

26. Military History Section, Headquarters, Army Forces Far East, “Homeland Defense Naval Operations: December 1941–March 1943,” Japanese Monograph #109, pt. 1, 1953, 8.

27. Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again , 4.

28. Robert Casey diary, 18 April 1942, in Robert J. Casey, Torpedo Junction: With the Pacific Fleet from Pearl Harbor to Midway (Garden City, NY: Halcyon House, 1944), 426.

29. Press Release, Seventh Naval District, Public Relations Office, undated, Box 148, Record Group 428, General Records of the Department of the Navy, Office of Information Subject Files, 1940–1958, NARA.

30. William Halsey to James Doolittle, 24 April 1942, in “Official Papers of Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King” (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1991), Microfilm Roll #2.



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