Today, April 18, 2022, marks the 80th anniversary of one of the bravest exploits in American military history. On April 18, 1942, eighty American flyers took off in sixteen medium bombers from the deck of the United States aircraft carrier Hornet. All these men were volunteers, and it was an incredibly daring mission. It was a one-way trip. These planes could not return and land on the Hornet, and even the take-off was very difficult. Except for a brief pre-raid trial run, no bomber of that size had taken off from an American aircraft carrier before. Once airborne, the planes were to fly to Japan, bomb targets in several Japanese cities, and then fly on to mainland China. Their hope was to land at an airfield in eastern China, refuel, and then fly on to Chunking. Unfortunately, a Japanese picket ship sighted the American ships, and the planes were forced to take off from the Hornet prematurely. Making it all the way to the Chinese mainland became much more doubtful, and chances of pilot survival appeared minimal.
The raid was a spectacular success. There was relatively little damage to Japanese war production facilities, but the attack sent a shock wave through the Japanese Empire, and it goaded their military into certain poorly conceived and ill-planned countermeasures. Furthermore, the attack was a tremendous boost to the morale of the American people. Up until this time there had been nothing but defeat and retreat in the Pacific.
Certainly, the eighty men who flew from the Hornet that day performed a mission far beyond the call of duty. They flew into the heart of the dragon in lightly armed aircraft and without fighter escort. They dropped their bombs and then managed to escape, flying on toward the coast of mainland China. As they approached China, fuel began to run out. Fifteen bombers either crash-landed or fell to earth after their crews bailed out. One plane landed in Vladivostok, a city in Soviet Russia. Fortuitously, only three men were killed in the crash landings, although there were other injuries, and eight Americans were captured by the Japanese. Three of those captured were executed for supposed war crimes, and the other five captives were subjected to brutal treatment and near starvation in a POW camp.
All eighty participants in the raid were awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. Their commander, Lt. Col. James Doolittle, received the Medal of Honor. No group of heroes deserved these honors more.
Shocked and alarmed by the Doolittle Raid, the Japanese high command decided that it must eliminate future threats from American carriers. Six weeks later they launched a massive attack on Midway Island calculated to lure the crippled American fleet out to its final destruction. Forewarned by our brilliant naval cryptographers, Admiral Nimitz was able to turn the tables on the Japanese and achieve a historic victory over the hitherto all-conquering Japanese armada.
These American heroes must never be forgotten