On the morning of April 12, 1942, seamen aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and her escorting task force, which had just linked up with the carrier Hornet north of Hawaii, were startled to see the Hornet’s flight deck crammed with strange airplanes, bigger than anything seen before on the deck of a US Navy aircraft carrier. The planes were B-25 Mitchell medium bombers, and the daring raid they carried out a few days later was to be their first major combat operation.
The raid resulted from President Roosevelt’s desire, expressed soon after the Pearl Harbor attack, that Japan be bombed as soon as possible to boost public morale. America had no airbases close enough to bomb Japan, so a plan was hatched to bring an improvised airbase, an aircraft carrier, close enough for modified B-25 bombers to strike Japan. Execution was entrusted to US Army Air Force lieutenant colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle, who began training select aircrews on short takeoffs. Taking off from aircraft carriers was a stretch for the medium bombers, and landing back on their flight desks was an impossibility, so the bombers, after dropping their munitions, would continue on westward to land in China.
On the morning of April 18, 1942, the task force was sighted by a Japanese picket boat 750 miles from Japan. It was quickly sunk, but not before sending a radio message. Fearing loss of the element of the surprise, it was decided to launch the bombers immediately, 10 hours earlier and 170 miles further from Japan than initially planned. Sixteen B-25s, armed with a mix of 500lb bombs and incendiaries, lumbered off the Hornet and, flying low to avoid detection, winged their way to Tokyo. They arrived around noon, and bombed military and industrial targets. 15 bombers made it to China, where they crash-landed, while another made its way to Vladivostok, where it and its crew were interred by the Soviets.
Of eighty B-25 crewmen, three were killed, and eight were captured by the Japanese, of whom three were executed and one died in captivity. The raid inflicted little physical damage, but the psychological impact was huge on both sides of the Pacific. It caused the Japanese high command considerable loss of face, which they sought to regain by setting in motion what turned out to be a catastrophic attempt to seize Midway island a few weeks later.