Yet, it was the Doolittle Raid that gave Americans hope.
Before the raid, the world was unsure what to expect from a U.S. response to Pearl Harbor. The U.S. Navy had been heavily, though not irreparably, damaged. The pre-war American military hadn’t reached war-time levels. The German military occupied much of Europe. The Japanese home islands, protected by the Pacific expanse, seemed untouchable.
Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid, and we offer a reminder: Do not reduce this event to merely one of hundreds of storylines of World War II. Its importance can’t be oversold.
Those who remember the early months of 1942 will recall the uncertainty that was felt across the United States. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor did more than kill U.S. sailors and damage American ships. It announced the Japanese as a formidable, modern military foe, and it illustrated how vulnerable the United States could be if unprepared. Emotions were high; morale was not.
To say Doolittle’s Raiders were daring is no stretch. Eighty pilots and crewmembers, led by Lt. Col. “Jimmy” Doolittle, took off from the USS Hornet on April 18, 1942, with grand plans to bomb Tokyo and other Japanese targets and make safe landings in China. Even with their B-25 bombers being stripped of excess weight to increase fuel efficiency, every chapter of the plan had to work for it to be a strategic success.
That didn’t happen.
The Raiders launched early for fear that a Japanese patrol ship had radioed their position to Tokyo. Ultimately, all 16 B-25s were lost. Most of the planes ran out of fuel after dropping their bombs and were ditched in the ocean or crashed in China. One plane landed near Vladivostok, Russia. Eight crewmen were captured by the Japanese; three were executed. Damage to the Japanese mainland was strategically minimal.
Yet, the raid was no failed mission.
President Roosevelt’s desire to quickly retaliate for Pearl Harbor — and shatter the Japanese veil of invincibility — came to pass. Americans aghast at the suddenness and loss of life at Pearl Harbor gained confidence that FDR was not a weak wartime president and that the untested American military was capable. It fueled America’s massive military buildup in 1942 and helped the nation withstand the war’s early disappointments in Hawaii and the Philippines.
The five remaining Doolittle raiders are well into their late 80s or 90s: Lt. Col. Richard Cole, Maj. Thomas Griffin, Lt. Col. Robert Hite, Lt. Col. Edward Saylor and Master Sgt. David Thatcher. Today, they’ll take part in a ceremony in Ohio.
As America inches closer to the day when its last World War II veteran passes away, it’s altogether fitting that we honor men like Doolittle’s Raiders. Their daring and their valor shine bright, still.