Jimmy Doolittle Gets Payback on Japan for Pearl Harbor: April 18, 1942

It is a matter of ancient wisdom, whether it be the tradition of Greek tragedy or of the Hebrew Testament of the Bible or of Japanese mythology, that, “Pride goes before the fall.” It seems, though, that, throughout history, this wisdom is often forgotten, and the results, in both mythology and in reality, always erupt in terrifying suffering, death, and destruction before the prideful fall.

During WWII, two cultures got caught up in this hubris, this overweening pride: Germany and Japan. It was hubris that drove them to attempt to conquer the world, to bring the world under their dominance. In the case of Japan, they had already taken much of Asia, and, in early December of 1941, they launched attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, Guam, and other American territories in their desire to control the Pacific.

Photo: YouTube/War History Online

The Pearl Harbor surprise attack on December 7, 1941, brought the war home to the United States. Interestingly, Admiral Yamamoto famously worried after their successful attack, “I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant.” And his words were prophetic. The American giant did wake up out of its sleep of neutrality.

Japan, at that time, believed that it was invulnerable, that no power could attack them on the mainland. The Japanese people believed that message too. But on April 2, 1942, a small U.S. Navy task force left San Francisco Bay with a very unusual, untested, never-tried-before mission.

Photo: YouTube/War History Online

One of those ships in that task force was the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. Lashed down on its decks were 16 United States Army Air Corps B-25B Mitchel Bombers. Their mission—to bomb Tokyo, the Japanese Imperial capital itself, along with Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe, and Yokohama, with high-explosive and demolition bombs. Their targets were to be military and industrial locations in those cities. The task force was under the command of Admiral “Bull” Halsey. And the bombing mission was under the command of then Col. Jimmy Doolittle.

This first video gives an animated account of the mission and its details as it sailed across the pacific to launch its mission. The plan was to get within 400 miles of the Japanese mainland before launching the B-25s off of the Hornet’s deck. This was an effort of incredible audacity. Launching Army Air Corps bombers off of an aircraft carrier had never been done before. They had practiced on land-based fields marked to the dimensions of the aircraft carrier but had never done it in real conditions.

Photo: YouTube/War History Online

The bombers were modified in many ways in order to accomplish this task, some of which you will hear in the video account. The task force also had to attempt to get that close to Japan without being spotted. They didn’t. And the planes had to be launched much further out than desired.

The second video is from the actual film taken at the various stages of preparation and the actual launching of the B-25s from the Hornet on April 18, 1942. Jimmy Doolittle’s bomber took off first, then each one after that, with only one small hitch in one of the take-offs. That plane sank below the deck before its pilot could bring her back up to join the formation circling above. All 16 made it to their targets, as you will see, without one being shot down, despite the fact that Japanese fighters were sent up to deter them, and despite the heavy anti-aircraft fire they had to go through.

The pilots knew that they would not be able to return to the aircraft carrier, so the original plan was that they would fly their planes into Russia and turn the planes over to Russia as “Lend-Lease,” but the Russians, already fighting heavily on their eastern front with Germany, did not want risk Japan opening up another front on their west and refused to allow this. Only one of the planes, because of fuel issues, actually landed in Russia, where its crew were taken as prisoners but were released in Iran a month later, and they were able to make it back home.

Photo: YouTube/War History Online

The rest of the planes landed, or their crews parachuted out over China. The Japanese launched a relentless attack against China as a result, and it is said hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens died in the Japanese reprisals for aiding the American flyers. Two crews were captured. Unfortunately, some were put on a public show trial, and several were executed by the Japanese. The rest were prisoners of war for the duration. Jimmy Doolittle would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his role in this successful mission against the homeland of Imperial Japan.

Yamamoto’s prediction came true. The American giant woke up, and, though it took almost four years to do it and hundreds of thousands of American and allied lives, in the end, the Japanese Empire fell ignominiously in full surrender on September 2, 1945.

Photo: YouTube/War History Online

Pride, once again, went before the fall. The vaunted pride of Imperialist Japan and Nazi Germany brought about their fall and the costs around the world were unimaginable. We must always be aware of the temptations of pride, both individually and as a nation. History shows that it is always the prelude to disaster.

The Veterans Site honors and gives its deepest thanks to the generation of warriors who fought with such courage, determination, and skill to bring an end to the maniacal hubris of Germany and Japan during WWII. You truly were the Greatest Generation.

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