Tokyo bound. An American bomber plane climbing off the deck of the carrier Hornet as part of the mission to bomb Tokyo on 18 April 1942.



Absence of the American aircraft-carriers in Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack and saving those ships, critically important to the modern naval warfare, caused that the Americans, forced to assume defensive tactics at the initial stage of the war, were able to mount spectacular raids against the enemy communications and naval bases scattered all over the western Pacific. Those raids were carried out by task forces formed around nuclei made of a carrier, two or three cruisers, and several destroyers. The raids began in the beginning of February 1942, simultaneously with the Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies.

The first to see the action was the task forces of Vice Admirals Frank Fletcher (Yorktown) and William Halsey (Enterprise). Their combined attack on the Japanese bases on the Marchall Islands diverted enemy forces from a convoy shipping supplies to Samoa.

Next raid took place three weeks later. This time the task force of Vice-Admiral Wilson Brown (Lexington) had to attempt an attack on the Japanese base newly established Japanese base in Rabaul on New Britain. Yet, the raid did not bring expected results, since the enemy planes spotted the American squadron prematurely. On the other hand, Halsey's raid on the Wake four days later was a considerable success - the island's installations were heavily bombarded by the ship artillery, and bombed by aircraft from the carrier Enterprise. On 4 March, Halsey's task force bombarded the Marcus Island, far to the north-west from the Wake, "barely" 1,000 miles from Tokyo.

In the beginning of March, Fletcher's and Brown's task forces, cruising for a month then in the western Pacific, joint together and on 10 March staged another bold action. This time their targets were Lae and Salamaua on the east coast of New Guinea, in the Huon Bay. As many as 104 bombers, torpedo bombers and fighters took off from the aircraft-carriers cruising some 46 miles off the southern tip of New Guinea, flew over the 2,000m-high Owen Stanley Range, and attacked the enemy anchorage in the Huon Bay. The surprise was complete and ended in a small revenge for Pearl Harbor: the Americans sank 3 ships, damaged many more, and demolished coastal installations with minimal casualties - one plane with one pilot shot down. Additionally, that bold attack diverted the Japanese attention from an important convoy steaming on 7 to 12 March from Sydney to Noumea on New Caledonia.

Successful raids of the American carriers in February and March 1942 should be appraised not only from the point of view of achieved effects, which after all were not able to counter-balance, not event partially, the chain of the Japanese successes lasting for more than a quarter, from Pearl Harbor and Kuantan to the Dutch East Indies and the Coral Sea. It was important, however, that operations of Halsey's, Fletcher's and Brown's groups had shown that it was possible to beat the Japanese, at that time marching from one success to another, inflict on them substantial losses, and try to wrestle strategic initiative from their hands. At the same time those operations had, or at least must have had, to some degree, cooled down the hurray-patriotic bombast of the Japanese militarists, who were already seeing the Rising Sun fluttering all over the Asia and the Pacific Ocean. They were dreaming of hoisting it over Australia, and somewhere in the Indies or on the Persian Gulf they would meet Wehrmacht divisions, which in the spring of 1942 were heading to the Suez Canal, and soon they would set their foot in the Caucasus. But in April 1942 they got a new warning not to underestimate the power and abilities of the United States - the raid of American bombers on Tokyo, a target seemingly unattainable.

To that daring operation Halsey assigned aircraft-carrier Hornet, three cruisers, and a flotilla of destroyers. On 18 April Hornet approached 650 miles to the coast of Japan, and 16 heavy bombers North American B-25 Mitchell took off under the command of Colonel James Doolittle. A pilot of that squadron, Captain Ted Lawson, left description of that action in his memoirs:

With full flaps, motors at full throttle and his left wing far out over the port side of the Hornet, Doolittle's plane waddled and then lunged slowly into the teeth of the gale that swept down the deck. His left wheel stuck on the white line as if it were a track. His right wing, which had barely cleared the wall of the island as he taxied and was guided up to the starting line, extended nearly to the edge of the starboard side.

We watched him like hawks, wondering what the wind would do to him, and whether we could get off in that little run toward the bow. If he couldn't, we couldn't.

Doolittle picked up more speed and held to his line, and, just as the Hornet lifted itself up on the top of a wave and cut through it at full speed, Doolittle's plane took off. He had yards to spare. He hung his ship almost straight up on its props, until we could see the whole top of his B-25. Then he leveled off and I watched him come around in a tight circle and shoot low over our heads - straight down the line painted on the deck. [Lawson T. W., & Mersky P. B. (2003).]

Whereas Halsey noted:

The wind and sea were so strong that morning that green water was breaking over the carrier's ramps. Jimmy led his squadron off. When his plane buzzed down Hornet's deck, there wasn't a man topside in the task force who didn't help sweat him into the air. One pilot hung on the brink of a stall until we nearly catalogued his effects, but the last of the sixteen was airborne by 0924, and a minute later my staff duty officer was writing in the flag log, "Changed fleet course and axis to 90°, commencing retirement from the area at 25 knots." [Morison S. E. (2010c).]

After a 5-hours flight American bombers came flying over Japan. Lawson was one of the first:

We were about two minutes out over the bay when all of us seemed to look to the right at the same time and there sat the biggest, fattest-looking aircraft carrier we had ever seen. It was a couple of miles away, anchored, and there did not seem to be a man in sight. It was an awful temptation not to change course and drop one on it. But we had been so drilled in what to do with our four bombs, and Tokyo was now so close, that I decided to go on. (...)

It took about five minutes to get across our arm of the bay, and, while still over the water, I could see the barrage balloons strung between Tokyo and Yokohama, across the river from Tokyo.

There were no beaches where we came in. Every inch of shoreline was taken up with wharves. I could see some dredging operations filling in more shoreline, just as we were told we would see. We came in over some of the most beautiful yachts I've ever seen, then over the heavier ships at the wharves and low over the first of the rooftops. I gave the ship a little more throttle for we seemed to be creeping along. [Lawson T. W., & Mersky P. B. (2003).]

After the successful flight, unmolested by the enemy fighters, the bombers released first demolition and then incinerary bombs: 13 bombers on Tokyo, and others on Osaka, Kobe and Nagoya. Then they took the course to the friendly airfields in China, but not everyone was successful. Out of 80 airmen taking part in the raid, 9 died when two planes crash-landed on the Chinese coast under the Japanese occupation; 3 pilots were taken prisoners and executed against the laws of war.

The Doolittle raid became a surprise not only to the inhabitants of Tokyo and other bombed cities, but also to the imperial leadership, which started to realise that "who sows the wind, reaps the whirlwind". Now it became obvious that  the Japanese home islands were within the range of the American air forces, and their territory could become a target of retaliatory bombings at any time.