September 25, 2013


Californians and the Military : General James Harold "Jimmy" Doolittle (1896-1993) (Colonel (CA, Ret) Norman S. Marshall and Chief Warrant Officer (CA) Mark J. Denger, California Center for Military History)

A month after the Pearl Harbor disaster, at a White House meeting on January 4, 1942, President Roosevelt asked his senior military leaders to find a way to strike back at Japan. At this grim point in the Pacific War, he believed that an air attack against Japan was the best way to bolster American morale.

Realistically, little could be done. Proposals included sending Army planes to bomb Japan from bases in the Aleutian Islands, Soviet Siberia, and China. But the Aleutians were too far from the main Japanese island of Honshu. The Soviet Union and Japan were not at war. Transporting bombs and fuel to bases in China was extremely difficult, and Japanese air and ground forces could easily thwart such a venture.

Roosevelt was particularly taken with the idea of bombing from bases in China. Lieutenant General H. H. Arnold responded that he was studying such a bombing mission against Japan. Preliminary plans were being developed calling for the bombers to fly to advanced bases in China, land under cover of darkness, refuel, and fly on to bomb Japan. But, added Arnold, it would take "a few months" to get the gasoline and fields available for the bombers and that these advanced bases in China could be easily attacked should the Japanese learn of the operations.

The problem seemed unsolvable until an idea came to Captain Francis S. "Frog" Low, the operations officer on the staff of Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander in Chief U.S. Fleet. Captain Low advised Admiral King that when he was taking off from Norfolk, Virginia, on a flight back to Washington, he had noticed the outline of a carrier flight deck painted on the runway of the naval airfield used to train Navy pilots. "I saw some Army twin-engine planes making bombing passes at this simulated carrier deck. I thought if the Army had some twin-engine bombers with a range greater than our [carrier planes], it seems to me a few of them could be loaded on a carrier and used to bomb Japan."

After listening to Low, a submariner, King, who had been both an aviation and submarine officer, leaned back and thought a moment. Then he said, "You may have something there, Low. Talk to Duncan about it in the morning. And don't tell anyone else about this." Thus, the plan was born for the first direct attack against Japan. It was the evening of January 10, 1942, on board King's flagship VIXEN, a former German yacht moored at the Washington Navy Yard.

The next morning, Low met with Captain Donald B. Duncan, a pilot, who was King's air operations officer. Duncan told Low that it was impossible for an Army twin-engine bomber to land on a carrier. If it could be lifted on by crane, a fully armed plane might be able to take off, but it would have to fly back to a land base.

Despite the many provisos, Duncan was intrigued by the possibilities of a carrier-based raid on Japan, and for the next few days he and Low read Army technical manuals on twin-engine aircraft, checked carrier specifications, and prepared a 30-page handwritten memo. It was a brilliant analytical paper. It concluded that such an operation was possible, although fraught with problems and risks. Duncan and Low then went to Admiral King and briefed him on their progress. After hearing them out, King told them, "Go see General Arnold about it, and if he agrees with you, ask him to get in touch with me. And don't you two mention this to another soul!"

On January 17, Low and Duncan outlined the idea to General Arnold, who immediately agreed to the proposal. Duncan and Low proposed a test takeoff of twin-engine B-25 Mitchell bombers from the aircraft carrier HORNET, then at Norfolk, Virginia. Arnold assigned three B-25s to try some short-field takeoffs, and on February 2 two of them were lifted aboard the HORNET by crane and spotted, one forward and one aft, as if they were two of 15 tightly arranged on the flight deck. The carrier steamed out into the Atlantic, and the Army pilots easily took off. But there was a great difference between flying off two bombers, with little fuel and no bombs, and perhaps a dozen or more fully loaded planes in the rough seas of the North Pacific.

Meanwhile, Arnold had assigned Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle to assemble a group of volunteer pilots and planes for the raid, modify the planes with extra gas tanks and other features, and start a training program -all quickly and with the utmost secrecy.
Doolittle now began one of the most intense training programs in aviation history.

We could strike their homeland at our nadir; they couldn't reach ours at their apex.

Posted by at September 25, 2013 2:00 PM

blog comments powered by Disqus