HR history: Doolittle raid, punching back at Japan, born in Hampton Roads

Few chapters in American history have been so steeped in worry and gloom as the dark days after the devastating Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.

With its once-mighty Pacific fleet reeling, the nation seemed helpless to resist as Imperial Japanese forces rolled over Guam, Wake Island and Hong Kong, then advanced into Burma and Singapore.

In the Philippines, the struggle quickly deteriorated into a wincing retreat for the U.S. and its Filipino allies — and it was soon to end in ignominious defeat with the siege and surrender at Corregidor.

But even as the news from the Pacific pushed shell-shocked Americans into frustration and despair, the first inkling of a daring mission to strike back at the Japanese heartland was being conceived and tested in Hampton Roads.

Spurred by the sight of medium-range Army bombers making a mock attack on the chalked outline of an aircraft carrier flight deck, a Navy officer flying over a Norfolk airfield hurried back to Washington, D.C., where he met with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Ernest King on Jan. 10.

By month's end, the Navy and Army had prepared a plan to launch an air strike from a carrier off the coast of Japan — and on Feb. 2, two B-25s proved the concept off the Virginia Capes by flying off the Newport News-built USS Hornet.

"The Doolittle raid on Japan was the most audacious military operation in U.S. history," says James M. Scott, author of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist book "Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid that Avenged Pearl Harbor.

"What's not talked about as much as it should be are the tests on the Hornet. It was the defining moment of the operation. If those planes had gone into the water, the whole thing would have come to an end."

Unlikely scheme

Though best-known for Lt. Col. James "Jimmy" Doolittle — the scrappy Army airman who led the B-25s over Japan — the famous raid of April 18, 1942, was born in the split-second insight of a Navy submariner.

Traveling to Norfolk to assess the progress of the newly commissioned Hornet, Capt. Francis Low was one of many members of King's staff attempting to grapple with the challenge of President Franklin Roosevelt's Dec. 21 order to bring the war to Japan.

And before he saw the Army bombers flying over the specially marked carrier training field in Norfolk, no one had seen anything but insurmountable obstacles.

The closest American land base to Japan was some 2,000 miles away in the Aleutian Islands, too far for even the largest long-range bomber to attempt an attack, Scott says.

The Soviet Union had signed a nonaggression pact forbidding the use of airfields there, and China was locked in a life-or-death struggle with an Imperial Japanese army that had already overrun much of its coast.

Low thought his idea might be unworkable. No aircraft that size had flown off a carrier before.

But King — a Naval Academy graduate who had earned his aviator's wings in middle age after success as a surface warfare and submarine commander — immediately saw its potential.

The next day he called in air operations officer Capt. Donald Duncan and asked him to come up with a plan.

"King was a natural fighter. He wants to strike back. He wants to go on the offensive," Scott says.

"So of course he wants to explore it — and he wants to explore it right away."

Five days later, Duncan delivered a 30-page report detailing the bomber and carrier best suited for the task as well as notes on the best routes and weather conditions.

Of four aircraft considered, the B-25 with a wingspan of just more than 67 feet was the most likely to stay clear of a carrier's island, he wrote, and its slow takeoff speed made launching from a carrier theoretically possible with the vessel turned into the wind.

He also chose the newly commissioned Hornet over its older sister ships — the USS Yorktown and USS Enterprise — because it was nearly 5 feet wider and almost 18 feet longer.

"All three carriers were built at Newport News Shipbuilding. But as the Navy learned more about how the class operated, the yard began to tweak them," former Virginia War Museum Director John V. Quarstein says.

"Even on the Hornet, the B-25s cleared the island by only a few feet. It would have been even closer on the other carriers."

Fast-paced plans

One day after their Jan. 16 meeting with King, Low and Duncan went to Army Air Force head Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, who embraced the concept immediately but wanted to run it by his chief troubleshooter before giving approval.

That's when Doolittle stepped in, bringing not only his stature as a daring and highly respected pilot but also his background in aeronautical engineering.

"He's the perfect person for this job. He's an incredible pilot and a brilliant intellect with a Ph.D. from MIT," Scott says.

"And this was a mission that demanded both brains and guts."

Doolittle confirmed Duncan's numbers within 24 hours, prompting a phone call in which Arnold and King quickly worked out a few details.

Duncan would handle the Navy's side of the mission while Doolittle would deal with reconfiguring the bombers and selecting the Army's airmen.

Just how quickly the project moved ahead can be seen in the speed with which Doolittle detailed the many modifications needed to reduce the weight of 24 B-25s by hundreds of pounds, then double their fuel capacity.

While that work was underway he ordered three other B-25s to arrive in Norfolk by Jan. 20, after which they began trying to launch themselves into the air from the chalked-off confines of the Navy's carrier training strip.

"One of the things that's so extraordinary about this raid is how something that had never been done before came together so quickly — and with so few people working on it," Hampton Roads Naval Museum Historian Clay Farrington says.

"But there were no egos here. The Navy and the Army were handing the different parts of the plan off to each other and then stepping aside when their part was done. And because of that everything fell into place in a way that might not happen today — when every decision is made by committee."

Crucial tests

On paper, the Army airmen faced an insurmountable task as they taxied to the 800-odd-feet section of marked-off runway.

The B-25 pilot's manual called for takeoff distances of 3,300 feet in calm conditions, with 2,000 acceptable in light headwind.

And though real-world experience had shortened the typical run to about 1,400 feet, that was still far longer than the 500-odd feet Duncan had calculated would be left on the Hornet's flight deck after subtracting the space needed to carry the B-25s.

Still, the newly introduced bomber took to its unconventional task quickly, partly because of the inherent way it handled.

"The interesting thing about the B-25 is that you can put it into the air before you have enough speed to fly it," says historian Dan Desko, the founder of B-25History.org and a longtime friend of Doolittle raid pilot Lt. Travis Hoover.

"So instead of doing as they were trained and gaining as much speed as they could get on the longest stretch of air strip, they were going full throttle from the start, pulling the yoke back into their chests and getting up into the air as quickly as possible."

Just how far they pushed past the red line can be seen in the loss of one of the planes, which was sidelined by a burned-up engine.

But so successful were the tests that Duncan boarded the Hornet two days after its Jan. 30 return from its shakedown cruise, telling Capt. Marc Mitscher that he and his crew would have to delay their shore leave for a new mission.

Studying a scale-model of the carrier's deck, the pair quickly calculated that at least 15 B-25s could be hoisted into place at the aft end of the vessel and still leave sufficient, if barely enough, room for them to take off.

Then Duncan told the surprised skipper that two planes would be put aboard using a special sling fabricated at the Naval Air Depot — and that the Hornet was to steam out the following morning for test launches off the Virginia Capes.

Test pilot Lt. John Fitzgerald Jr. roared down the flight deck first, climbing into the sky a few feet short of the end of the ship at 1:27 p.m. Feb. 2.

Lt. James McCarthy throttled up the engines, released the brakes and rose into the air 20 minutes later.

Duncan and Mitscher watched with satisfaction as McCarthy's plane left the deck in only 275 feet.

But nobody was certain about the outcome before the planes were airborne.

"If we go into the water, don't run over us," one of the pilots told the Hornet's communications officer just before the tests started.

Stinging raid

Ten weeks later, the Hornet was steaming toward Japan along with the Enterprise and its escort vessels.

Crisscrossed in tightly packed rows across its deck were the dual tails and wings of 16 B-25s, whose air crews were now veterans of a short but rigorous training regime conducted at an isolated Florida airfield under the eye of 29-year-old Navy flight instructor Lt. Henry Miller.

So skeptical were some of the pilots from the Army's 17th Bombardment Group that when Miller — who had never seen a B-25 before — climbed into the cockpit for the first time and explained what he was going to do, they told him it couldn't be done.

Charging down the marked-off runway, he lifted off at 65 mph — fully 40 percent less than the typical speed of 110 mph.

"He ended up having a great relationship with the Army fliers — most of whom picked it up pretty quickly," Scott says.

"And he was there on the Hornet when they launched, giving them last-minute instructions on a chalkboard."

Doolittle and his men would need all that training and more to make their first flight off an actual carrier, when after being spotted by a Japanese picket boat, they were forced to launch some 200 miles early in unfavorable weather.

When Doolittle's lead plane took off, it vanished over the bow before roaring back into view, making both the Navy and Army men anxious.

The second B-25 had to fight its way into the air after swells crashed over the pitching deck, prompting Adm. William "Bull" Halsey to write that it hung so long on the brink of a stall that "we nearly cataloged his effects."

Five hours after the first launch, however, Doolittle dropped his bombs over Tokyo, initiating a completely unexpected raid that also would strike targets in five other Japanese cities.

Just the day before, a Japanese radio English-language broadcast had boasted about the impossibility of an American bombing attack.

But not only did all 16 B-25s drop their payloads, but they also escaped Japanese air space and fled toward China with unexpectedly light opposition.

So befuddled were the Japanese defenders that they could not determine from which direction they had been attacked.

"This shouldn't happen," Chief of Staff Adm. Osami Nagano reportedly muttered when he heard the first bombs explode. "This just shouldn't happen."

"The damage was minimal, but Doolittle's raid accomplished exactly what the United States was after," Scott says.

"It absolutely stunned the Japanese, and it gave the American people the victory they had been hoping for.

"This was a country on the ropes — and then it succeeded against all odds. That's why this story still resonates so strongly 75 years later."

Erickson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4783.

ONLINE: Go to dailypress.com/history to see a photo gallery on the USS Hornet and the Doolittle Raid.

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