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The Most Decorated Ship of the Second World War

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Jimmy Doolittle's own bomber was the first to rumble down Hornet's pitching flight deck. Between the forward velocity of the carrier, and the winds churned up by the stormy weather, he and the other pilots had the benefit of a 50 mph headwind. Still, with less than 500 feet of open flight deck to take off from, many of the planes nearly stalled on take-off, and hung precariously over the high seas for hundreds of yards before finally gaining altitude.

April 18, 1942: An Army Air Force B-25 lumbers off the deck of Hornet CV-8, bound for an audacious raid on the Japanese home islands.

As Doolittle's B-25s strained to become airborne, Nashville opened fire on the Japanese picket at a range of 9000 yards, drawing the attention of the Enterprise planes in the area. ENS J. Q. Roberts of Scouting Six made a glide-bombing attack on the little vessel, but missed with his 500-pounder. VF-6 fighters also dove on the picket, then veered off to strafe a second picket even nearer the task force, which had been hidden from view in the wild seas. Over the course of that morning and afternoon, Nashville, Enterprise Air Group, and later planes from Hornet, spotted and attacked sixteen Japanese picket ships. Several were sunk, and more damaged, but the pickets were aided by the high seas, which made them difficult targets.

The last of the sixteen bombers struggled into the air an hour after Doolittle's B-25 cleared Hornet's flight deck. Launched 170 miles further from their targets than planned, the bombers didn't waste fuel forming up, and instead headed directly westward, in a long ragged line behind Doolittle's plane. His mission accomplished, Halsey didn't dally even a minute before ordering Task Force 16 east.

In the afternoon, as the carriers and cruisers raced for safety at 25 knots, radiomen tuned into Radio Tokyo, which was broadcasting a program of English language propaganda. They didn't know it, but also in the listening audience was Ambassador Joseph Grew, interned in the U.S. Embassy in Japan.

A little after 1400 - noon in Tokyo - the announcer's studied English diction suddenly gave way to frantic Japanese, and then dead air. As air raid sirens in Tokyo screamed, Ambassador Grew placed a losing bet with his lunch guest, the Swiss ambassador, wagering the sirens and gunfire were all just a false alarm.

Racing in at just 2000 feet, the first B-25s over Tokyo emptied their bomb bays, and Ambassador Grew's wallet. Doolittle's and twelve other bombers sought out and bombed military and industrial targets throughout Tokyo: an oil tank farm, a steel mill, and several power plants. To the south, other bombers struck targets in Yokohama and Yokosuka, including the new light carrier Ryuho, the damage delaying its launching until November. Perhaps inevitably, some civilian buildings were hit as well: six schools and an army hospital.

Aided by low altitude, camouflage, and extra speed gained from leaving their loads of bombs behind, the bombers were able to evade the enemy fighters patrolling overhead, and anti-aircraft fire from the cities below. But they were far short of the fuel needed to reach the airfield at Chuchow. One plane turned north, and surprised Russian soldiers by landing near Vladivostok. The remaining fifteen planes crashed or were ditched over China. Remarkably, most of the 80 pilots and crewmen survived the mission. Of eight airmen who were captured, three were executed by the Japanese, and another died in captivity. Four others were killed during the mission.

The Consequences

The damage inflicted by Doolittle and his raiders was slight, but it had lasting effects on both sides of the Pacific. As Roosevelt had calculated, the daring raid was a tremendous boost to American morale, which had been severely tested by four long months of defeat and loss.

China bore the heaviest cost of the raid. In May 1942, the Japanese army launched operation Sei-Go, with the dual aims of securing Chinese airfields from which raids could be launched against the Home Islands, and punishing villages which might have sheltered Doolittle's airmen after the Raid. Exact figures are impossible to come by, but tens of thousands - perhaps as many as 250,000 - Chinese civilians were murdered in the Chekiang and Kiangsu provinces.

The raid, however, made a profound impression on the Japanese leadership. For several months, the Japanese high command had been debating its next major move against the Allies. The Navy General Staff, headed by Admiral Osami Nagano, called for a strategy of cutting off America from Australia, by occupying the Fiji Islands, New Caledonia and Samoa. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander in Chief of the Combined Fleet, disagreed, arguing that the U.S. Navy - in particular, its carriers - had to be neutralized. This necessitated seizing bases in the Aleutian Islands to the north, and the western tip of the Hawaiian Island chain. From those bases, as well as the bases already held in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands, Japanese long-range bombers could keep the American carriers penned up in Pearl Harbor, perhaps even forcing them to retire clear back to the American west coast.

The Doolittle raid ended the debate. With Japan's military deeply embarrassed by having exposed the Emperor to danger, and fed up with the harassing American carriers, Yamamoto prevailed. His staff was given the go-ahead to prepare and execute a major operation in the central Pacific. Yamamoto hoped the operation - a complex plan involving a thrust to the north, followed by the occupation of several American-held islands near Hawaii - would result in "decisive battle" with the American fleet near a tiny atoll known as Midway.

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