World War II is so much of action and lively stories. It is a never ending saga as every single research opens a new and a perhaps unknown and untold story. Most of us knew that Japan attached USA at the Pearl Harbor on 7th December 1941, but not many must have known of The Doolittle Raid – on 18 April 1942, was the first air raid by the United States to strike the Japanese Home Islands (specifically Honshu) during World War II. By demonstrating that Japan itself was vulnerable to American air attack, it provided a vital morale boost and opportunity for U.S. retaliation after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.

The raid was planned and led by Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle. Doolittle would later recount in his autobiography that the raid was intended to bolster American morale and to cause the Japanese to begin doubting their leadership: “The Japanese people had been told they were invulnerable … An attack on the Japanese homeland would cause confusion in the minds of the Japanese people and sow doubt about the reliability of their leaders. There was a second, and equally important, psychological reason for this attack … Americans badly needed a morale boost.

After Pearl Harbor, it took the United States several months to rebuild and mobilize its Pacific Fleet. While America was preparing to challenge Japan for control of Southeast Asia, some American officers wanted to do something to boost the morale of the American people and to score a psychological victory against the Japanese. One of their proposals was to bomb Tokyo itself using long range bombers launched from the deck of an aircraft career. It was a dangerous mission, since nothing like it had ever been done before. Nevertheless, Lt. Colonel James H Doolittle and his volunteer pilots successfully bombed the Japanese capital on April 18, 1942.

Bombing Japan was a logistical problem because the United States did not control any islands within striking distance of Japan. That meant that the bombers had to be launched from an aircraft career. All the bombers in the US Air Force were designed for runways much longer and wider than the deck of an aircraft carrier, however, so it was difficult for the bombers to take off from them. After extensive training at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, the crews of the 16 bombers became proficient at taking off in extremely short distances. Even once the Air Force overcame the problems of launching the aircraft, they had problems with fuel. The B-25 bombers had to be highly modified to maximize fuel economy and fuel capacity. Even still, it was not possible for the bombers to return. The plan was for them to land in China after dropping their bombs over Tokyo.

Of course, the mission required complete secrecy. In early April of 1942, the bombers were loaded onto the USS Hornet for the journey to Japanese waters. No one was told the destination of the ship until it was well out to sea. The Hornet joined the USS Enterprise and the two continued to within 600 miles of Japan when the battle group was spotted by a Japanese patrol boat. The boat was sank, but not before sending word to the Japanese. Fortunately, the warning was not heeded because the Japanese command thought it must be a joke. Fearing that the Japanese would prepare a defense against the bombers, they were ordered to take off at once even though they were 200 miles from where they had planned to begin the mission.

The bombers flew low and avoided any Japanese antiaircraft defenses. Around noon on April 18th, they dropped their bombs onto the unprepared city of Tokyo. The Japanese military and people were stunned because they did not think an attack was possible. After dropping their payloads, the bombers flew over China, but could not see their landing sites. 15 of the crews parachuted or crash landed over China while one crew made it to a Russian airstrip. Only eight crew members were captured by the Japanese. Of these, three were executed, one died in a POW camp, and the rest survived the war as POWs.

Though the raid did not do much physical damage to Tokyo, it did tremendous psychological damage. The official in charge of the air defense of Tokyo committed suicide and the Japanese stationed four fighter squadrons there to prevent future attacks. The raid also greatly boosted the morale of the American people. For their success, Doolittle was promoted to General and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

 “It was hoped that the damage done would be both material and psychological. Material damage was to be the destruction of specific targets with ensuing confusion and retardation of production. The psychological results, it was hoped, would be the recalling of combat equipment from other theaters for home defense thus effecting relief in those theaters, the development of a fear complex in Japan, improved relationships with our Allies, and a favorable reaction on the American people.” —General James H. Doolittle, 9 July 1942

 This blog is an extract from the article written by Edward Oxford and originally published in August 1997 issue of American History Magazine. More information on the story and the raid is available at An animated version of the entire operation is available at