The U.S. Navy thought hard about how to quickly mount a retaliatory strike in response to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Its answer was the Doolittle Raid, when the carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) launched Army Air Force B-25 bombers at Tokyo.
In preparation for this maneuver, Rear Admiral Henry L. “Hank” Miller, then a lieutenant, was tapped to train Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s bomber detachment how to launch from carriers. A U.S. Naval Academy graduate, Miller had started his career on board the USS Texas (BB-35), but after a chance flight physical, he became a carrier pilot, and then a flight instructor.
April 2022 marks the 80th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid. In the following edited excerpts from his oral history, Miller describes the key training that made it possible.
Eglin Field, Florida, had been set aside for the work. I climbed into a B-25—I had never seen one—as copilot.
I told them that when you make a carrier takeoff, number one, you held both feet on the brakes. For this plane, we’ll try one-half flaps. I asked them how much manifold pressure we could hold on for—say, 30 extra seconds—and put the stabilizer back about three-fourths. With engine full bore, I told them to release the brakes.
They had been taking off at 110 miles an hour. On the first takeoff with me, they observed an air speed of 65 to 67. They said, “That’s impossible.” I said, “Okay, we’ll try it again.” The second takeoff the same way showed an air speed of 70. They were then convinced that a B-25 could take off at that slow speed.
For the run to Japan, the B-25 was going to be at 31,000 pounds—2,000 pounds over the maximum designed load. I checked out all the pilots for light loads, then intermediate, then the maximum load they would be taking on the raid. Everyone did pretty well.
The last day came. I checked out all the crews except the last man, a pilot by the name of Lieutenant Bates. He was letting his plane fly him. I told him he had to try it again. He took off in a skid. He pushed into a harder skid. He didn’t push the throttles to the floorboard, and the plane settled right back down on the runway on its belly.
The next day, Jimmy Doolittle came back from Washington and said, “I heard you had an accident.” I said, “Yes, sir. Nothing wrong with the technique or the airplane. What was wrong was the pilot.” Doolittle said, “Okay. You know, I’m going to the West Coast, and we’re going to pick up another instructor out there to give us some more of this.”
I said, “You know, Colonel, it’s a matter of professional pride with me. I don’t want someone out there saying let’s start all over again with this technique. I’d like to go with you.” He said, “Okay, if it’s alright with Washington, you can fly out with me.”
We put the planes in the depot at Sacramento to get them ready to go aboard the carrier. As a plane came out of overhaul, I’d take it up with a crew to Willows, California—give them takeoffs at Willows. The last day, Doolittle said we’re going to fly down to Alameda, go aboard the Hornet. We were taking extra crews, 15 planes and 18 or 19 crews. He told me to list the crews in order of their expertise.
I did, and Doolittle and his staff asked why Bates wasn’t on the list. I told them all the mistakes he had made after his plane had crashed. They didn’t take Bates. Just before going aboard the Hornet, Doolittle asked again about the crews. I said there would be no trouble. “To show you, I’ve had less B-25 time than them. Take me and a 16th plane aboard. When you get 100 miles out, I’ll launch and deliver it back to South Carolina,” I said.
Miller went on board with the extra plane and accompanied the raiders to their launch point against Japan.