One of the better known special missions of World War II was flown by a new bomber type making its combat debut.*
Let’s take a look at the mission and plane.
In the months after the start of the Pacific War the Japanese Empire expanded at an explosive rate and met with very few set backs. By April of 1942 the Japanese controlled, geographically, the largest empire in the world.
For the allies it was obviously a matter of time before they could fight back effectively; the US was expanding its military and industry to a total war setting, but were quite some ways from reaching it yet. The British and Commonwealth were already at total mobilization but over-extended in every way. The Chinese were exhausted from ruinous war and internal problems.
President Roosevelt wanted to do something to show the Japanese they were still in the fight. Some way of giving a bloody nose to help morale at home and remind allies we hadn’t given up.
A naval officer, Capt Francis S. Low (actually an anti-submarine specialist) presented the idea of launching longer range Army bombers from an aircraft carrier to hit the Japanese home islands. This caught the imagination of planners but presented several problems. First was taking off; land based bombers typically need 4000 feet or more of runway, aircraft carriers offer less than 1000 feet (814 feet on a Yorktown class carrier). And that’s if the deck is otherwise clear. Keep in mind carriers of this era were much smaller than today and decks were narrow (86 feet on a Yorktown class carrier). The ship’s island was to starboard so aircraft had to clear it to the left. If half the deck was taken with aircraft storage the forward aircraft might only have 400′ to take off in.
Two big positives though were that a Yorktown class carrier could steam at 32 knots (38 miles per hour) and winds at sea were often 30 knots or more. So by facing into the wind, the bombers would only have to gain another 30 knots (or so) in 400′ to get airborne. This still seemed iffy… but maybe…
The next big problem was where to land. From Tokyo the obvious allied land base was Vladivostok. Really, look on a map! But the Soviet Union was a problem. Although they were “Allies” in the war against Germany and Italy they were neutral against Japan. To be fair, Germany still controlled huge areas of Soviet territory and the outcome of that war was far from certain. So the Soviets would categorically NOT annoy Japan.
China was a bit further from Tokyo, but definitely was a co-belligerent. IF they could prepare landing areas at the farthest east points still under their control the problem might be solvable. This looked to be a 2400 mile flight.
So far this has only been looked at in approximate terms, which is how this plan would have started in Washington. A specialist was needed to start sorting out details. It just so happened a well qualified individual was available. He was a reservist who returned to full time service just over a year previously. He was a well known test pilot, stunt pilot, and the first person in the US to earn a Doctorate in Aeronautical Engineering. Of course that’s Lt Col James Doolittle.
Lt Col Doolittle’s first task was to find the most suitable aircraft. He considered range, load, take off distance and wingspan (to clear the island of a carrier). The B-26 Marauder was ruled out pretty quickly, it needed too much speed. The B-23 Dragon was rejected as too big. The B-18 Bolo was looked at more favorably; good load and range, low take off speed, but just too big and not many could be carried. The untested B-25 Mitchell emerged as the best choice. It was big enough to carry a decent load but small enough that several could be carried. As a more modern type it had a good speed too, only its contemporary, the B-26, was faster.
Practical testing was needed, so two B-25s were loaded on the USS Hornet, a Yorktown class carrier that was just working up as a new unit at Norfolk, Virginia. On Feb 3, 1942 both aircraft successfully flew from the Hornet back to Norfolk.
The plan was for 15 aircraft to fly the mission, so crews were needed. The 17th Bomb Group was chosen, in a remarkable display of logic, the only bomb group fully equipped with the B-25. 22 crews were chosen to receive specialized training.
The aircraft would be special too. Most significantly, the range of a B-25 was listed at 1300 miles. Much more was needed. A 160 gallon tank was added to the bomb bay, and smaller tanks to the aircraft interior. Total supply going from 646 to 1141 gallons. Much standard equipment including defensive weapons, radios (not all, just the back-ups), and Norden bomb sight (not needed for a low altitude drop) were removed. De-icers were added.
By the end of March the specially trained crews and aircraft were moved to Sacramento, California where they met up once again with the Hornet. The ship was now considered ready for duty and would be their base. On April 1, sixteen B-25s were loaded on the ship. This was one more than planned, the idea being that the naval instructor who had helped with training would fly the plane back to Sacramento after departure just to prove it could be done. It didn’t take long to decide though that the plane would be carried the whole distance and join the strike on Japan. Of course Doolittle himself would fly the first plane which had the least deck available.
The Hornet and its cargo of Army bombers departed on their mission April 2. North of Hawaii they joined up with the Enterprise which would provide escort. The whole task force would be under the command of Admiral Bill Halsey and also included four cruisers and eight destroyers.
The plan went slightly awry on the morning of April 18. The task force was sighted by a Japanese picket boat 10 hours and 170 miles before the planned launch. They were still 650 miles from the coast of Japan.
The only reasonable option was to launch immediately. The two aircraft carriers would be at great risk if they encountered Japanese airpower. Indeed, the picket boat had radioed the sighting and the main Japanese carrier fleet (the Kido Butai, five carriers strong at this time) was ordered to intercept. They were much further out, near Formosa, but Admiral Halsey did not know this.
The early launch of course made range an immediate and paramount concern. As many extra gas cans as could be rounded up were loaded into each plane. Most aircraft had already been stripped of all extra weight, but a few more things were considered extra now. The top turret was the only defensive armament carried on most planes (officially ALL planes, but a few carried a single .30 in the nose) and these were reduced to a few seconds of ammunition.
The weather was very rough, but the high winds may have aided the launch. All 16 were off within an hour. Tokyo was the priority target and 10 planes headed there. Two aircraft targeted Yokohama and single B-25s went to Yokosuka, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe. All 16 bombed Japan, although one jettisoned bombs without any target to avoid fighters. The rest bombed and did damage. None were badly damaged and three Japanese fighters were claimed shot down by the gunners.
Recovery was sort of a mess. One aircraft diverted to Vladivostok because of fuel concerns. The other 15 all made for China. They were fortunate to have a tail wind, but the early launch meant they were arriving at night. The Chinese were not notified of the early launch so lights weren’t lit, beacons weren’t operating. That meant the crews arrived over an unknown country with no visible place to land. They proceeded as far as they could then bailed out or crash landed. Most came down in Chinese controlled territory or were able to meet up with Chinese resistance in Japanese areas. Only one man was lost in this; except for two crews that were captured by the Japanese. Eight men from those two crews survived to be taken into custody, four of them were executed by the Japanese for “war crimes”.
Of the four who survived, one, Jacob DeShazer, returned to Japan post-War as a missionary and became friends with Mitsuo Fuchida (the same Fuchida who commanded the Dec 7 air strike on Pearl Harbor) leading him to becoming a Christian.
Sixteen bombers could not accomplish major damage. But the impact on American morale was significant. Perhaps the impact on Japanese morale was even more significant. The Japanese claimed their sovereign soil had never seen an enemy attack (I strongly suspect that’s not technically “true”!) and the military’s duty was always to protect the sacred homeland. So in one stroke, all the top government and military leaders had failed.
It seems hard to believe in the modern world that any nation at war thought they could be immune to harm, but apparently this was so. It affected the Japanese war effort on a couple levels. In spite of propaganda claims to the contrary, Army and Navy leadership all knew they had not brought down a single B-25. So most immediately it meant several fighter squadrons were recalled to become a permanent air defense force. The raiders had been amazed by the lack of intercept; a few twin engine Ki-45 Nicks (heavy fighters) and a handful of pre-production Ki-61 Tonys (which were identified as “Messerschmitts”) were all they encountered. From here on, several fighter groups would always be in the home islands. More money would also be spent on anti-aircraft defenses.
It also meant Admiral Yamamoto’s plan to draw American carriers into an ambush was approved by the government. Obviously those carriers represented a great risk to the nation if they could get so close to Japan for raids. Of course that plan meant seizing a base sure to draw a maximum response from the US, specifically Midway Island. And you know that’s already been the subject of several posts here…
The Japanese response on mainland China was savage. It makes sense for the Japanese to have pushed back their frontier into China to prevent such things in the future, but they engaged in slaughter on an epic scale. Chinese estimates are a quarter million men, women and children killed.
This particular aircraft may be the best known from the Doolittle raid. It was flown by 1st Lt Ted Lawson. The name, “Ruptured Duck” was a reference to a mishap during the mission training in which Lawson plane’s tail hit the runway hard on landing. A graffiti artist scrawled “Ruptured Duck” on the fuselage, and Lawson claimed the name for his own. Lawson and “Ruptured Duck” were the seventh plane to depart from Hornet. After bombing Japan Lawson continued to China where he crash landed. He and his crew all survived, but several were badly injured. Lawson had his left leg amputated when his injury became infected. After return to the states and assignment to administrative duties Ted Lawson wrote the book 30 Seconds Over Tokyo. A movie was made of that book in 1944. It featured a reproduction of “Ruptured Duck” and won an Academy Award for best effects. The footage of the take-off from that movie was reused at the start of the 1976 movie Midway.
So many of you have seen this plane before! Although the kit manufacturer boasts their nose art is more authentic! Apparently sometime after the movie was made Ted Lawson doodled a “more accurate” representation of the nose art with the help of his wife. When contacted for any help or info by the model company she provided their drawing.
Which brings us to this model. This is the Accurate Miniatures kit. Accurate Miniatures was a revolutionary company in the late 20th Century. The packed deep research and detail into every kit. Sadly, that didn’t guarantee them financial success and when this kit came out the company was already having serious problems. But the good news is it forced other manufacturers to step up their game as it led to the best sort of commercial competition. I can’t prove it, but I’ve always suspected the current sort of masterworks we see from Tamiya and Eduard owe something to Accurate Miniatures.
As is typical of their releases, this model is beautifully molded and detailed. The technology is clearly of an earlier time than what we see now, but seriously it still holds up pretty well. This kit does require some patience and attention to the instructions, but it mostly builds up nicely. And for those things that ARE tricky, well, I’ve got a few more of these kits in my stash; next time will go better…
* I’ve recently learned this isn’t actually true, although it does often appear in print that way. In March of 1942 the 3rd Bomb Group deployed to Port Moresby with A-24 Banshees. But, there weren’t enough A-24s for the whole group. So 12 B-25s were taken from a Dutch squadron (training in Australia, but in administrative limbo since the fall of Dutch East Indies) and assigned to the 13th Bomb Squadron of the 3rd Bomb Group (several sources say this “reassignment” was to cover for the flat out theft of those airplanes by American pilots). The 13th Bomb Squadron flew their first mission with the purloined Mitchells on April 6. I love it when reality actually sounds like a bad TV show.