Shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, America was thrown into war in the Pacific. Japan was an isolated island country protected by Japan’s aggressive colonial growth. There was only was way to cripple the Japanese war machine and hit at the moral of the civilians who supported it: bomb the Japanese mainland.
The Japanese thought it would be impossible. There was no base in range from which the Americans could launch bombers. Or so they thought. One man saw the potential of aircraft carriers and set about devising a plan to launch heavy bombers to strike the mainland.
General James Doolittle was an aviation pioneer. He thought that well equipped B-25 Mitchells (two engine heavy bombers that would prove themselves over Germany and Italy) could launch from the deck of the carrier. They couldn’t carry enough fuel to make it back to the carrier, or to any other bases, but they could potentially land in China.
The raid, launched 75 years ago today, was an outstanding success.
Lt. Col. Richard Cole is the last surviving member of the raid. He’s 101. There were 80 men in the raids.
CNN caught up with Cole at the National Museum of the US Air Force at Wright Patterson Air Force Base In Dayton, Ohio.
“It’s kind of lonely because I’m the last one,” Lt. Col. Cole said.
The B-25 Mitchell bombers flew from the USS Hornet. Bombers this big had never been flown from carriers, and many feared they didn’t have enough runway to get airborne. Doolittle had proved the concept by practicing on a short runway in Florida.
On the day of the raid, the crews had to launch 12 hours ahead of schedule. They’d been spotted by Japanese fishing boats that might have radioed in the arrival of the carrier. Their early launch meant their fuel would run out before reaching their planned landing zones.
It was, almost assuredly, a suicide mission. Still, 80 men, including Jimmy Doolittle, took to the air. Lt. Col. Richard Cole was in the plane with Doolittle. “It turned out to be one of the easiest things,” Cole said of the takeoff. “Besides, I was flying with the best pilot, so why worry?”
Even on takeoff, the airmen weren’t sure of where they were going. Only once they were en route were they told. They flew low, no more than 200 feet above the ocean,and they flew into Tokyo in broad daylight.
The Japanese were so unprepared that no one, not even those seeing the American planes coming in, understood what was happening. There were Japanese planes in the air that could have easily shot down the undefended B-25s, yet they assumed, like those on the ground, that the planes were Japanese.
They struck targets hard, and then ran. Lt. Col. Cole said, “I felt pretty good that we had done what we were supposed to do.”
That was just the beginning, though, for the airmen. They now had to find a way to get the planes down. This wouldn’t be easy as night had set in and the gas was running out.
Many of the crews ditched their planes. They simply bailed out as soon as they were over China.
Lt. Col. Cole, after the crash landing, was reunited with Doolittle. While still in hiding in China, Doolittle told Cole that he was afraid the mission had been a failure and that they’d be court-martialed.
16 planes had launched from the carrier. 11 crews had to bail out. One crew managed to land in the Soviet Union. Eight airmen were captured by the Japanese. One of them starved to death. Three others were executed.
Doolittle’s fears of court-martial were unfounded. He was awarded the Medal of Honor. The mission was seen as an incredible success. The United States struck back at the Japanese and brutalized the country’s moral at a time when the Japanese were in control of much of the Pacific region.