Just after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt demanded a retaliatory strike against Japan. However, the lightning quick losses of the Philippines and Guam precluded the use land based bombers, and US Navy was loathe to sail so close to the Japanese Home Islands with their only significant remaining force in the Pacific: the aircraft carriers that escaped the destruction at Pearl Harbor.
In January 1942, a junior officer on Admiral King’s staff suggested that the Army Air Corps’ newest bomber, the B-25 Mitchell (named after BG Billy Mitchell, an early aviation officer known for doing the impossible while antagonizing the Hell out of his opponents) could be flown off the deck of an aircraft carrier. If so, the bomber’s range would allow the aircraft carriers enough stand off to prevent their interception by the Japanese Navy. The aircraft couldn’t return to the carriers, but would land in China after bombing Japan. The task to work out the details and lead the audacious raid was given to the US Army’s best test pilot, LTC Jimmy Doolittle
Doolittle and 79 other volunteers trained on taking off from a carrier at Eglin air base by painting a carrier deck on the runway and practicing. Doolittle modified the bombers with larger fuel tanks to extend the range and ditched some of the defensive armament. The extended range would allow the bombers to reach friendly airfields in China. In April, while the Japanese Kido Butai was busy raiding targets in the Indian Ocean, Doolttle transferred his bombers to the USS Hornet for their one way trip west to the Orient.
With the deck packed with Army bombers, the Hornet was escorted by Admiral Halsey’s USS Enterprise fresh from raiding Japanese bases in the Central Pacific. On 18 April 1942, the joint task force was spotted by a fishing trawler used by the Japanese as a cheap picket line. The trawler was sunk but not before it got a message away. Doolittle and Halsey decided to launch the strike even though they were still 200 miles from the planned launch point. That meant they would probably not have the fuel necessary to make the Chinese airfields, and would have to bail out or crash land in China.
After a hair raising take off from the Hornet (they had not actually attempted it before, just the painted deck on the strip at Eglin) the 16 B-25s flew without interference for Japan. The Japanese didn’t expect the American task force to launch planes until the next day so did little to prepare for the raiders. Doolittle and his men bombed six targets in Japan against little resistance. The air raid sirens didn’t even go off until well after Doolittle and his raiders departed. Though they did negligible damage, the myth of Japanese invincibility as shattered.
Only a fortuitous tail wind allowed the raiders to even make it to China. Thirteen hours after they took off, fifteen of the crews would bail out or crash land in China, while one crew landed in Vladivostok where they were interred by the Soviets (The Soviet Union had a non-aggression pact with Japan and was obliged to inter any belligerents that entered its territory and impound their equipment). Most of the crews made it to safety with the help of Chinese peasants and troops though two crews were captured by the Japanese, one of whom was executed to a man. The other crew spent the rest of the war in captivity. When asked about the location of the raid’s origin at a press conference, FDR replied “Shangri-La”, a fictional place in the Himalayas from the popular novel “Lost Horizons”, by James Hilton.
The Japanese immediately launched a series of operations to capture the raiders, and seize Chinese airfields along the unoccupied east coast of the country in order to prevent possible raids against Japan in the future. At least 100,000 Chinese civilians died at the hands of furious Japanese troops in retaliation for the Doolittle Raid.
Doolittle initially thought the raid was a failure and expected a court marital upon his return. However, his raid was a great boost to the morale of the American people who had seen nothing but Japanese victory in the papers for the last five months. Doolittle was promoted directly to brigadier general, skipping colonel.
The Doolittle Raid convinced the Japanese that in order to protect the home islands, they must lure the American fleet into battle and destroy it. The bait they chose for the trap was Objective A-F: an island at the the extreme northeastern end of the Hawaiian archipelago, Midway.