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NEWS | April 19, 2022

Innovate, Accelerate, and Thrive: The Air Force is 75

Headquarters, Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs

JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii -- In today’s Air Force, we look for innovative solutions that can be implemented quickly to maintain the advantage over potential enemies. As we look forward, we can also look to the past for examples and inspiration. And there is, perhaps, no better example of innovation quickly applied than an event from the early days of World War II, here in the Pacific. Two weeks after the Japanese attack on U.S. military forces in Hawaii, President Roosevelt tasked the Joint Chiefs with planning a quick response to the Japanese attack that had shocked and demoralized the country.

A Navy pilot proposed that twin-engine bombers could be launched from a carrier deck, and Lt Col James Doolittle, an experienced test pilot in the Army, was chosen to plan and execute the mission. His plan called for B-25s to launch from a carrier in the north Pacific, fly to targets in Japan, then continue on to airfields in China, where they would recover. The only problem was, no one had ever launched a twin-engine bomber from a carrier, and certainly no Army bomber pilots had ever taken off from a carrier. Also, the normal range of a B-25 was about half of the distance required for the mission, and since the B-25 was a new aircraft that had never been tested in combat, no one knew for sure how it would perform. They moved ahead with preparations, and by February, 22 B-25s were modified to reduce weight and increase range, and pilots successfully launched two B-25s from a carrier in Virginia. All that remained was deciding which unit to assign the mission.

In early 1942 the Army only had one B-25 unit with any experience, the 17th Bombardment Group, which had been flying antisubmarine patrols along the west coast in Oregon. Under the guise of moving them to the southeastern U.S. to perform the same mission, the 17 BG moved to South Carolina, where their aircrews were offered the opportunity to volunteer for an unspecified, but “extremely hazardous” mission. Training took place at Eglin Field, Florida where they trained in night and low level flying, and practiced taking off from a carrier deck marked out on the ground. After three weeks of training, the planes flew to California, where they received final modifications and were loaded onto the USS Hornet.

On 2 April 1942 they left San Francisco bound for a rendezvous with Admiral William Halsey’s Task Force 16, which would escort the Hornet into Japanese-held territory. On 18 April a Japanese patrol craft spotted the task force and radioed an attack warning to Japan, so Doolittle and the Hornet’s captain decided to launch immediately, even though they were 200 miles short of their intended launch site. Flying as low as possible to avoid detection, the planes approached Japan 6 hours later, climbed to attack altitude and completed their bombing runs. Interestingly, they encountered very light resistance, in spite of the warning given by the patrol boat. Of the 16 planes in the mission that day, 15 flew to China and one, extremely low on fuel, flew to Vladivostok in the USSR, where the plane and crew were impounded. That was the only plane that actually landed. The rest either ditched at sea or crashed in China.

In terms of a military operation, the attack caused very little damage, and all 16 planes were lost. Doolittle himself expected to be court-martialed when he returned. Instead, he received a hero’s welcome, a promotion to Brigadier General, and the Medal of Honor. Overall, the mission succeeded in boosting morale across the country. This victory was only possible through airmen’s innovation to overcome the challenges of aerial range and attack capability, providing a creative solution in what we can now draw inspiration from during a dynamic global security environment.

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