North American B-25B Mitchell

One of the better known special missions of World War II was flown by a new bomber type making its combat debut.*

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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.

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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…

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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.

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So much interior detail, it would be a shame to never see it again!  Notice the Light Grey 500 lb bombs.  There’s actually some minor confusion on this.  Ordnance directives of the time clearly stated naval high explosive bombs were Light Grey, and the Doolittle raiders absolutely used naval ordnance.  But the display at The National Museum of the United States Air Force has Insignia Yellow bombs.  I want to say they’re just wrong; but the thing is, the surviving raiders met at that museum, at that display many times over the years.  Did they not notice, or not care what color the bombs were?  Or did they know something I don’t?

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The top of the bomb bay holds an extra 160 gallon tank installed just for this mission.

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.

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The waist position.  See the vertical column at right?  That’s um, a special sort of seat…

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There that’s what I meant. This is why it pays to read the directions!

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.

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Normal carrier based bombers were much smaller, with less range and load.  In April of 1942 standard carrier bombers would have been the SBD Dauntless (top left) and TBD Devastator (bottom left).

Practical testing was needed, so two B-25s were loaded on the USS Hornet, 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.

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Some of the Doolittle raiders were intercepted by pre-production Ki-61 Tonys, a type allied flyers had not seen before.  They were identified as Messerschmitts; but of course, no Bf 109 was in the picture.

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.

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No B-25B left the factory with tail guns, and no weight critical raider was about to have them added.  But one modification Jimmy Doolittle had for the raider’s planes was two black painted broomsticks mounted in the rear observation blister.  And it seemed to serve its purpose, crews reported that intercepting fighters were very careful not to attack from the rear.

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.

L1/Japan, Tokyo Raid/1942/pho 2

Official US Air Force photo dated April 17, 1942.

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.

B-25 taking off from aircraft carrier

Looks like plenty of room!  Official US Air Force photo.

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.

Doolittle Tokyo Raiders, Crew No. 7

1st Lt Ted Lawson.  Photo via US Air Force Museum.

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.

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Hollywood’s version of “Ruptured Duck” from 30 Seconds Over Tokyo. This is either a B-25C or B-25D dressed up as a Doolittle raider.

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.

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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29 Responses to North American B-25B Mitchell

  1. jfwknifton says:

    Thank you for sharing that. It was a wonderful account of what I would argue was the bravest mission by the Americans in the Pacific War, if not the whole war. I always thought that there should have been a dinner held every five years for the Doolittle raiders and the Dambusters. They would have had a lot to talk about!

  2. Jeff Groves says:

    Nicely done Dave, both the post and the model! I hope to do a Dolittle Raider myself at some point, some of the aircraft still carried faded wargame markings which would be an unusual detail.

  3. erniedavis says:

    If I recall there was case where a B29 landed in Soviet territory also. The crew became “prisoners of war” and the Soviet’s first heavy bomber had a remarkable resemblance to a B29.

    • atcDave says:

      Yes the Tu-4 was almost a carbon copy of the B-29.
      Very similar situation with the B-25 they got. The crew were treated as VIP POWs for several months, then given the opportunity to “escape” to Americans (or Brits? It’s been a while since I read the story!) in Iran I believe. But the plane was considered “Lend-Lease”. Although unlike the B-29, the Soviets were actually lend-leased B-25s later in the War; and they never felt the need to make their own copy.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        I forget where I read it, but apparently the B29 was planned to have some feature or piece of equipment that was canceled very late in the pre-production process, but they didn’t want to delay further so they left the now useless mounting bracket in the plans. Someone familiar with the B29 who saw a Tu-4 said the useless mounting bracket was faithfully reproduced in the Tu-4.

      • atcDave says:

        That’s funny!
        I think some parts (landing gear maybe? Something common with the 377 Stratocruiser) were covertly purchased through commercial parts suppliers.

  4. The raid was an incredible mission to undertake, and against so many many odds. I like how in the instructions it’s makes note of the toilet seat being closed in case of a WAAFs visit! Great model Dave.

    • atcDave says:

      Thanks AT! Yeah its not often you get a big laugh from kit instructions.

      It definitely was an amazing stretch of a mission.

  5. Chris Kemp says:

    Very interesting post, Dave. I have just watched “Midway” on the strength of it. Did the usual wargamer’s thing of skipping the dull bits between the plot narrative and battle scenes.

    Regards, Chris.

    • atcDave says:

      HAH, Excellent. There is some great footage in that. But its such a hodgepodge I think it distracts from the narrative. And don’t get me started on “composite characters”…

      I know the new movie draws a lot of heat (notice I resisted saying “flak”!) for the CG, but honestly I think it tells a much better story. I honestly love the 3-D modeling, and apart from obviously not creating models of certain types (Wildcat, Buffalo, Avenger, Catalina, Flying Fortress, a few others) it was much easier for me to suspend disbelief. And NO fictional characters. Maybe I should put up a post of everything I found wrong with it, and why I still loved it!
      But the old “Midway” makes me laugh when you see a take-off in an Avenger, flight in a Vindicator, attack in a Helldiver, land a Hellcat… It really exposed the weakness in working from available footage. Even if much of that footage is fun to watch purely for its own sake.

    • Ernie Davis says:

      We talked about this regarding “The Battle of the Bulge” and the need to allow some license in one area (authenticity of the tanks) to allow something else (epic tank battle) in another. Granted this was a lot more about the availability of stock footage than any creative vision. In fact I watched Tora! Tora! Tora! almost back to back with the older Midway, and was kind of knocked back by the difference in quality. It was amazing how much footage from the former ended up in the later.

      • atcDave says:

        Yeah I think Tora!Tora!Tora! Is a vastly better movie. The filmmakers were content to let history tell its own story (accurate narrative, no fictional characters) and they spared no expense in creating the scenes they needed to. There’s still some limitations based what was physically available to them, and oddly the cast is all 10+ years too old (?) for their parts; but on balance I think it’s an excellent movie.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        And oddly I think I still like that Midway better than the new version.

      • atcDave says:

        Hah! No, not a chance. New one is much better.

        Now Tora! Tora! Tora! is a classic. Outstanding movie. But 1976 Midway, not so much…

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Eh, maybe I’ll need to watch again, but my overall impression of the newer one was that it was predictable and relied on CGI way too much as opposed to original storytelling (while granting you can only do so much original storytelling in a historical drama).

      • atcDave says:

        Yeah no doubt, if it was too unpredictable it would be bad history!
        I loved the CG, it felt like they brought it to life. Whole squadrons of planes that no longer exist! Just awesome.
        No doubt they took some liberties, things were too up close sometimes. Planes flying between the ships in battleship row was a bit much. And Japanese AAA was actually pretty bad throughout the war, maybe it brought down three planes on June 4 (I think we once saw 5 going down in one shot!).
        What I most wanted were MORE 3-D models. Like the Yamato was the only Japanese battleship they did, so we saw too many of them at one time. And they only did Yorktown class carriers, so when the Lexington was sinking they animated it as a Yorktown. I mean, I get it; Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet were the Yorktown class and they got 95% of the screen time. And the star of the movie, the SBD, went through some marking and equipment changes in the six months covered; they just showed them as at the Battle of Midway from beginning to end. Many other things like that. But of course this sort of modeling is really in its infancy. If they try again in another 43 years imagine how immersive it could be!
        I think they are working on another for The Battle of the Philippine Sea?! Very excited to see what that will look like!

  6. JMSpear says:

    Greyhound is coming out, all CGI. These just don’t exist anymore. The battle of the Philippine Sea would be good but I would like to see the USS Samuel B. Roberts at Savo Island. Hope I got the names right.

  7. erniedavis says:

    Well, I did give the newer Midway a second look. You are right, it is a better movie than I gave it credit for being. Part of what I was reacting to, I think. was how it borrowed so much from the original that wasn’t strictly historic. Also the entire Doolittle in China segment seems a bit out of place, though I understand they were trying to expand the scope of this one, but it came at the cost of shortening the actual battle time to a lot les than I thought it should have been.

    I also get bugged by some of the same stuff you do, such as the primary tactic for the Japanese is a low level staffing run between ships, etc. I also get bugged by their utter indifference to portraying the military in any realistic sense. They pay absolutely no attention to military protocols such as saluting, covers, etc. When you go in to the pilot’s wardroom and half are wearing they’re covers and the other half aren’t, well half are wrong no matter what.

    • atcDave says:

      I’m glad you gave it another chance AND liked it better!
      I think, as a Hollywood movie, there’s going to be shortcomings no matter what. I was also somewhat disappointed that they told over six months of story, it reduced time for the titled event. The movie really was the story of the Enterprise for six months.
      But given how painfully little most people know about history anymore, maybe its best to establish context. I watched it for the first time with my wife and another couple. I was VERY pleased afterwards with how much understanding of what happened they all seemed to get from it. Although they were shocked when I mentioned Dick Best lived another 60 years, he looked to be in very poor health at the end (he was, his lungs were badly damaged by a faulty Oxygen tank) and never flew again, but after several years he recovered quite well.
      As far as the Doolittle raid goes I mostly agree. But again, it helped establish context. I believe one of the production companies involved was Chinese, and that likely means the Chinese market was a consideration. So the Doolittle raid is the most relevant tangent that would concern China. It was a pretty big deal in the run up to Midway.

      Military decorum is a funny thing. Its probably the most alien to movie makers of any aspect of the story. Especially since most of the involved parties in the movie were career military. Draftees, war time enlistments and reserve officers were still mostly “in the pipeline”, Midway was fought by professionals (mostly, the Hornet as a new ship, had more short timers than the Enterprise or Yorktown).
      I was also mildly annoyed by how vague the actual JOBS of the featured characters were. I don’t believe we ever met the original air group commander on the Enterprise (Cmdr Young) who led VB-6 into Pearl Harbor on Dec 7 and in the Marshall’s raids. Wade McClusky was introduced right away, even though he was commanding the fighter squadron until just before the Doolittle raid. I liked that he was teased about being able to fly a Dauntless. Of course as a career professional he had certainly flown everything on board, but was primarily a fighter pilot until Midway. But all these details would be completely lost on most viewers. Especially since they didn’t model the Wildcats at all.
      I believe Dick Best started the war as Operations Officer (third in command) of Bombing 6 (not sure why the movie had him in Scouting 6 at the start?), moved up to XO fairly quickly and became CO just before the battle. On a practical level there was no difference between how the Bombing squadron and Scouting squadron operated on a US carrier, and its certainly possible there’s inconsistencies in the records about what squadron he was attached to. Bombing and Scouting squadrons flew the same equipment, had all the same training, and even flew mixed missions pretty regularly; but the film-makers did not clarify any of this. Perhaps they themselves didn’t understand that there were two different squadrons of Dauntlesses on board? Like I said, it is PRACTICALLY a trivial matter, but it stood out to me as fuzzy in the movie.
      On a similar note, I don’t *think* Lindsey was the Torpedo squadron commander for the whole period covered, but he was the only one we met.

      These are mostly the sort of things I expect to be jumbled up in a movie (just how many secondary characters do we need?!). I see it as such a huge win that this movie was even made, and that it did present the flow of the event(s) pretty well. It does strike me as amusing though that the professional critics were pretty harsh but the viewer rating at Rotten Tomatoes is pretty good. I’m not surprised that professional movie sorts just don’t get it; but viewers who actually saw the movie did.

  8. atcDave says:

    I’ve recently learned this wasn’t actually the combat debut of the type, 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.

    • Ernie Davis says:

      That is interesting, I never knew that. My guess would be that any Dutch resistance was mostly pro-forma. The fact that they were in Australia pretty much let them off the hook. It’s not like the Australians were going to let them take their planes and go home…

      • atcDave says:

        Worse for the Dutch, they had no home to go to! I know they did ultimately help with patrols and had several Catalina squadrons. But I don’t *think* they ever flew deliberate combat missions after DEI fell that March.

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Well my guess is that at the time the Dutch had no recognized independent government and no chain of command, so rather than let a baker’s dozen B25’s sit idle get them to someone who can put them to use…

      • atcDave says:

        They did have a recognized government-in-exile in London. And the B-25s were lend leased to them right before the collapse, 40+ of them. So they weren’t left completely high and dry anyway.
        But I believe their military command agreed to part with the 12 after 13th BS had already flown off with the planes… in the middle of the night. Like an episode of Hogan’s Heroes, or Operation Peticoat!

      • Ernie Davis says:

        Good point, by ’42 just about all the conquered nations had governments in exile.

        I guess we just have to see the American pilots like repo men who jumped the gun.

      • atcDave says:

        Yes, exactly!

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