US Bombers Avenge Pearl Harbor

Just four months after Japan’s attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, Colonel ‘James’ Doolittle, a noted aviator in his own right, led a daring bombing raid on Tokyo. The raid is notable for many reasons, not only because of the length of the flight needed to reach Tokyo, but also the difficulty they had in getting the aircraft off the flight deck, the fate of the captured crewmen and because of the tragic consequences for 250,000 Chinese civilians massacred by the Japanese in retaliation for the help that was given to the American airmen who managed to make it to China.

The Tokyo Raid was specifically in retaliation for what the US saw as an unprovoked attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The Japanese had intended to launch their attack only after formally notifying the US that they had withdrawn from peace negotiations, but in fact the raid took place before any such notification took place.

On 18 April 1942 the Tokyo Raid, which became known as the Doolittle Raid, was the first bombing mission that struck at the Japanese Home Islands during the Second World War. Although the strike caused little damage in military terms it provided an enormous morale boost to US citizens, showing that, despite the distance and difficulties, they were able to take the fight to the enemy. It also showed the Japanese that they could not hide behind the vast distance of the Pacific Ocean; that they were vulnerable to American attack.

Sixteen US Army Air Force B-25B Mitchell medium bombers were transported deep into the western Pacific Ocean on board the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. The mission required the aircraft to head for Tokyo to bomb military targets before flying on to China. The size of the B-25 meant that not only was it going to be difficult to get the aircraft into the air, but even if they managed to do so the aircraft carrier was too small for a return landing to be possible. For this reason all of the aircraft that took part in the raid were lost. In all eleven of the crewmen were either killed or captured. Of those taken prisoner three were executed by the Japanese Army in China. The remaining thirteen crews and all save one of a fourteenth made it back to the United States, or at least were able to re-join American forces elsewhere.

The impact of the raid went far beyond the morale boost for the US. The Japanese Navy withdrew its aircraft carrier fleet from the Indian Ocean, limiting their influence in the area, as the vessels were redeployed in defence of the Home Islands. The attack is also thought to have eventually prompted Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto to decide to launch his attack on Midway Island. The US victory in the Battle of Midway was a major turning point in the Pacific war.

In China, the invading Japanese forces took fearful, extreme retribution against the civilian population for what they saw as the assistance the Chinese had given to the American airmen. As a result the Japanese Army massacred 250,000 civilians.

For more information on the military conflict in the Pacific in the first half of the twentieth century take a look at The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Imperial Naval Sir Service by Peter Edwards.

The book is published by Pen and Sword Books (Aviation) and is currently available in hardback, priced at £25.00. The ISBN reference number is 9781848843073. Click here to order your copy.

For more information on British aircraft and other British aviation heroes and landmarks take a look at Heroes and Landmarks of British Aviation by Richard and Peter Edwards.

The book is published by Pen and Sword Books (Aviation) and is currently available in hardback, priced at £19.99. The ISBN reference number is 9781848846456. Click here to order your copy.

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