On this day seventy-one years ago, the United States did not have much to celebrate. No victories, certainly, in the war that had begun with the catastrophe at Pearl Harbor. Nothing that promised to gain the military initiative and nothing, certainly, to raise spirits on the home front. Nothing but defeat.
Japan, meanwhile, had gone from victory unto victory, its fleet defeating that of every nation it faced. The Americans at Pearl Harbor, the Dutch in the Java Sea, the British Royal Navy off Singapore where it lost the Prince of Wales and the Repulse and, then, in the Indian Ocean off Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where it lost an aircraft carrier, several other ships, many airplanes and men, along with control of the Indian Ocean.
The Japanese fleet was so thoroughly successful that its leaders were asking, "What next?" and finding it difficult to come up with an answer.
Provoked by an audacious American attack on their homeland, the Japanese admirals arrived at an answer that turned out to be disastrous for their fleet and fatal to their country.
That attack was called the “Dolittle Raid,” after the man in command and pilot of the lead aircraft: Lt. Colonel Jimmy Dolittle, probably the second most famous aviator in the world after Charles Lindbergh. The objective was to retaliate against Japan and demonstrate to its citizens that they were not, as their leaders assured them, safe in their island nation. President Roosevelt wanted to take the war to the Japanese. And, not incidentally, do something that would boost the morale of his countrymen.
The obvious method was to launch air attacks from carriers. But any carriers that sailed close enough to Japan to launch and recover their aircraft would surely be spotted and attacked and, most likely, sunk. The United States Navy had only four carriers in the Pacific and needed every one.
Still … if the carrier planes needed to get too close, why not stand off a little further from Japan and launch long-range bombers? A Navy man came up with the idea. The Army Air Corps flew bombers that had the range. Flying a B-25, twin-engine bomber, an Army pilot successfully took off from the deck of the carrier Hornet, in the snow, off Norfolk in early 1942 and the plan began to take shape.
Dolittle took a group volunteer pilots and crew, to Eglin air base in northwest Florida where they practiced, over and over, the sort of very abrupt take off they would have to accomplish to get into the air from a carrier deck. They were there for most of March,1942. Then, they flew their planes to the west coast where they were loaded onto the Hornet which left port for a rendez vous with the carrier Enterprise and its escorts, under the command of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey.
The B-25’s had been modified and stripped down to reduce their weight and increase their range. But nothing could be done to the planes that would enable them to land on a carrier deck. The plan was for the pilots to fly to Japan, bomb their targets, and proceed to China where they would land on airstrips and eventually be repatriated. Russian territory was actually closer but while they were our allies and we were supplying them with vast amounts of equipment for their fight against the Germans, the Soviets had a non-aggression treaty with the Japanese and would not agree to let the Dolittle Raiders land in their country.
Long odds grew even longer when the American carriers and their escorts were spotted by patrolling Japanese ships with some 300 miles still to sail before they reached the launch point. The decision of commanders on the scene was … launch immediately.
There is grainy, black and white film of the inelegant B-25s rolling ponderously down Hornet’s flight deck, straining to become airborne and then seeming to leap into the air in something that looks like desperation.
Sixteen planes left Hornet. The raiders bombed Japan and most made it to China where most crashed. Some men, incuding Dolittle, bailed out of their airplanes. (One plane landed in Vladivostok.) Some raiders were captured and some executed by the Japanese. Most were repatriated. Dolittle considered the raid a failure and expected to be court martialed when he returned to the states. He was, instead, awarded the Medal of Honor.
The raid, in truth, did little damage to Japan and that was easily repaired. But it did, undeniably, raise morale in the United States. Still, risking half the U.S. Navy’s carriers to accomplish this might have seemed reckless except …
The Japanese high command was so shocked by the raid that it decided to send its fleet east to finish the fight with the U.S. Navy and ensure that this would never happen again. The Dolittle raid, then, led to the Battle of Midway.
Also, Japanese message traffic increased significantly after the raid and this was a boon to American code breakers whose work was crucial to the victory at Midway.
On April 18th there is a reunion of the Dolittle Raiders. Sixty-one of the eighty survived the war. Now, there are four. Three of them, are back in northwest Florida for this year’s reunion: Lt. Col. Richard E. Cole, 97, Lt. Col. Edward Saylor, 95, and Staff Sgt. David J. Thatcher, 92. Lt. Col. Robert L. Hite, 95, is ill and cannot attend.
There will not be another reunion, this is the last. At every reunion, a set of 80 silver goblets, each engraved with a raider’s name, is flown from the U.S. Air Force Academy to the reunion site and the goblet bearing the name of any man who has passed in the last year is ceremoniously turned upside down. The original plan was for the last two survivors to break open a bottle of 1896 cognac, kept on hand for the occasion, pour some into their two goblets and raise a toast themselves and the other 78.
Since there will be no more reunions, the three will fill their goblets, make that toast, drink, then turn those last goblets upside down.
A toast, then, to them all.