(All photos from the US National Archives and Records Administration unless otherwise stated.)
Many legendary heroes came out of World War II, and one of the most amazing stories has to be that of Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle, who led an air raid on Tokyo that was later named after him — the Doolittle Raid. China also subsequently paid a heavy price for contributing to this military exercise, and it created for China and the US a historical friendship of fighting shoulder to shoulder.
The Doolittle Raid was a valiant operation. It was not on a large scale, but had a huge psychological effect in breaking the myth that the Japanese empire would always win. It boosted the morale of the Allies and made a real change in the war.
In December 1942, Japan launched an unsportsmanlike sneak bombing of Pearl Harbour; the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo the following April was an outstanding sudden attack by the US on Japan following a public declaration of war on both sides. At the time, Japan was on an all-out offensive in Southeast Asia, and quickly gained control of Indochina, the Malayan peninsula, Singapore, Indonesia and Burma.
Fighting shoulder to shoulder in the Doolittle Raid
In the Philippines, 70,000 US and Philippine troops surrendered at Bataan and went on the horrific Death March. General Douglas MacArthur — commander of US Army Forces in the Far East — was forced to leave his troops behind. Previously, Western countries watched China resist the Japanese invasion as a third party. While they sympathised with China, it was only after engaging in real fighting with the Japanese army that they truly felt the bravery of the Chinese people, and the cruelty of the Japanese.
Japan transferred nearly one-fifth of its troops from China, and in just six months it had completely defeated the Western troops in Southeast Asia and given them a taste of their cruelty, so they knew what the Chinese had gone through. In fighting the common enemy, the US and China established a deep friendship, and the first and biggest joint action was the Doolittle Raid.
With the Allies being beaten back, US President Franklin Roosevelt called on the military to hit back. The navy proposed the daring idea of an aerial attack on Japan, as they felt that land-based bombers could be modified to take off from an aircraft carrier at an appropriate distance to attack Japan. Retired air force Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle was tasked with planning and executing this mission.
In February 1942, following testing of the latest BB-25 bombers, it was confirmed that the idea could work, and Doolittle started selecting team members and conducting three weeks of secret training in taking off from the deck of an aircraft carrier, low altitude flying, night flying and bombing.
On 1 April 1942, the 17th Bombardment Group with 16 modified B-25 bombers carrying five crew each — as well as ground crew and administration personnel, making a total of 130 combat personnel and 71 operations personnel — boarded the US Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet at San Francisco.
All of the bomber crews were only told just before setting off that the mission was to attack Japan. In a stroke of creativity, Doolittle attached to five bombs “friendship medals” that the Japanese government had previously awarded to US servicemen, saying that the medals should be returned to Japan with the bombs. The photographs of the scene captured by war journalists became iconic images of the war in the Pacific theatre.
In the early morning of 18 April, Japanese patrols spotted the escort fleet of the USS Hornet in the waters 1,300 kilometres from Japan, and alerted the Japanese Navy. Doolittle immediately decided to bring the operation forward by ten hours, and the raid began.
From 8:20 am, the 16 B-25 bombers took off and flew low over the sea to evade radar detection. At around noon, they entered Japanese airspace and bombed numerous military and industrial targets in Tokyo, as well as in Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe and Osaka.
Japan was completely unprepared for the raid; it had at least 50 years of military victories in wars, and the Japanese were used to the idea that they were invincible and could not imagine that they would be bombed. So, when the air raid sirens went off, they were unsure of what was happening.
Anti-aircraft artillery was heard sporadically, and the Japanese aircraft immediately took off to intercept, but did not shoot down any attacking US bomber. After completing the mission, all of the 16 B-25s made their exit — 15 went to China as planned, while one flew to the Soviet Union.
This daring air raid was subsequently proven to be a semi-suicidal operation. Not only did the aircraft enter Japanese airspace and waters, but there was no backup plan or preparation for the flight to China. Given the top secret nature of the mission, the US did not inform China beforehand of the raid, so China could not prepare to guide the US aircraft to land, or any rescue operations. Even US Major General Claire Lee Chennault did not know, so when the bombers entered China, it was pitch black and they could not find the lights of the air base.
Doolittle ordered all the pilots to bail out; he landed in a paddy field in Lin’an, Zhejiang province. He later recalled thinking the other pilots might have landed in Japanese occupied territory and become prisoners of war — all the aircraft were lost and the raid was a failure, and he would be court-martialled when he got home.
The huge impact of the raid would only come out later. Its military value was far greater than Doolittle expected. The other pilots landed in places like Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Jiangxi and Hunan. Three people lost their lives; 64 people survived, eight were captured by the Japanese, and three were executed.
Experiencing the warmth of the Chinese
Those who survived were kept safe by civilians and guerilla forces. They sought out the Nationalist forces, who escorted them to Chongqing. Over nearly two months of travails, Doolittle and the US pilots felt the simple warmth of the Chinese.
On 29 June 1942, Soong Mei-ling — Madame Chiang Kai-shek — gave medals to Doolittle and all the pilots who had taken part in the raid at a ceremony in Chongqing, to thank them for their great contribution to the war. China also helped Doolittle and the other US pilots to return home safely, but paid a heavy price — in retaliation, the Japanese launched the Zhejiang-Jiangxi campaign or Operation Sei-go, embarking on a massacre in rural areas and killing an estimated 250,000 Chinese.
But the massacre did not stop China’s determination to fight; on the contrary, it showed that Japan was panicking. With the bombing of Tokyo and the embarrassment at the hands of China and the US, Japan adjusted its military plans and moved many of its anti-aircraft artillery from its occupied overseas territories back to Japan to boost its anti-aircraft defences, so the Allied troops met with less resistance when counterattacking in Southeast Asia.
At the same time, to destroy US aircraft carriers as soon as possible and prevent a similar raid from happening again, Japanese headquarters hastily initiated the Battle of Midway, where its strategic defeat became the turning point in the Pacific theatre. So, while the Doolittle Raid appeared to inflict only light damage on Japan, in fact, it changed the course of the war.
As for the 73 pilots who survived, they got to know China after the raid, and 20 stayed to carry out missions in the China-Burma-India theatre.
While US bombings of Japan increased in scale and frequency towards the end of WWII, the legend of the Doolittle Raid was not diminished. Subsequently, many literary and cinematic works in the US depicted this military operation, including Pearl Harbor in 2001, The Chinese Widow in 2017, and Midway in 2019, which gained the attention of global audiences.
As for the Chinese, in compiling the history of the war, they also enthusiastically spoke of the Doolittle Raid, and treasured the deep historical bonds of China and the US fighting together.
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