While the U.S. Air Force and its predecessor, the U.S. Army Air Force, is often fraternally derided by other U.S. services as the “the chair force,” “the air farce,” and “zoomies,” the heroism and gallantry of U.S. airmen is a testament to the best this nation has to offer in men and machines.
With casualty rates per capita of personnel far in excess of other services (there’s nowhere to take cover or run to protection in the sky), the U.S. Air Force has played a vital role in support of land troops and in making American strategic victories possible. Without air supremacy almost every, if not every one, of America’s military victories since and including WWII would have been defeats. We look at one of those air exploits now.
In early 1942 the U.S. was still reeling from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor two months prior. President Franklin Roosevelt and his service chiefs knew that for a domestic morale boost and a strategic maneuver, we not only had to defend against Japan, but we had to strike at them at their very heart. The Navy came up with a plan.
We would launch 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers from the carrier Hornet against Tokyo, the capitol and Imperial seat of Japan, and several other Japanese cities. They would hit Tokyo and the other locales and then go on to ditch in China. Then, with the help of Chinese forces and partisans fighting against the Japanese, our pilots and crews would get back into friendly hands.
But the Mitchells were not designed for carrier operations. However, only those planes had the range and payload to do the job. So the Navy trained with U.S. Army Air Force pilots to take off on the reduced runway at sea. It wasn’t easy, but they mastered it.
So on April 18, 1942, 16 U.S. planes manned by 80 airmen, with the support of two U.S. Navy carriers —the Hornet and the Enterprise— four cruisers, and eight destroyers, set off with the Hornet to get in range of Japan. They got close when they were spotted by a Japanese picket boat. Before the vessel was sunk by the U.S.S. Nashville, the Japanese boat got off a warning to Japan. It was mercifully lost in the communications chain. The Americans were close but not close enough for optimum range. We had two choices: go early and risk loss of range for ditching and pickup or wait until they were in good range but risk detection and a nasty surprise over the coast and over Japan proper. They chose to go early.
Led by Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, hence the name of the raid, the raiders in their Mitchells arrived over Tokyo about noon Tokyo time. They went in at 1,500 feet and targeted ten military and industrial sites in the city, two in Yokohama, and one each in Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe, and Osaka. They achieved complete surprise. No bomber was shot down.
Most of the raiders got to China, though some were captured and executed by the Japanese. One crew ditched and was picked up by the Soviets. They were secretly transferred to the Iranian border and into allied hands from there. It was a massive morale boosting success and let the Japanese know they were not immune to offensive operations. They would learn that lesson better in two months at Midway.