Doolittle Raid: That time America clapped back in WWII

Jessica Evans
Updated onMay 2, 2023
4 minute read
doolittle raiders

(Left to right) Second Lt. Henry A. “Hank” Potter, Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Harold Doolittle, Staff Sgt. Fred Anthony Braemer, 2nd Lt. Richard E. Cole and Staff Sgt. Paul John Leonard stand in front of a B-25 Mitchell bomber. (Courtesy photo from


The Doolittle Raid was a retaliatory air raid by the United States on Tokyo, Japan, on April 18, 1942. The raid was a reactionary war effort after the Japanese attack…

The Doolittle Raid was a retaliatory air raid by the United States on Tokyo, Japan, on April 18, 1942. The raid was a reactionary war effort after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It involved the launching of B-25 bombers from an aircraft carrier, which was considered an impossible feat,. Remarkable, it caused minimal damage but boosted American morale.

Here's how it happened.

Imagine being hand-selected by a revered and respected commander for a suicide mission. That’s what happened to the crew members of the Doolittle Raiders. The plan was for the bombers to fly one-way to their targets in Japan. Then, they were expected to either crash-land in China or bail out and try to escape on foot. However, thanks to favorable winds and some luck, several of the planes were able to make it to the Chinese mainland.

Doolittle Raid Mission Day

Under the cloak of darkness, the first light of dawn was yet to break. It was in that low light the intrepid crew members of the Doolittle Raiders climbed aboard their B-25 bombers. The mission would indelibly alter their destinies. And yet, they all understood the risks and still remained unwavering in their determination to contribute to the war effort.

This audacious plan to strike Tokyo called for expert pilots and crew members. However, many of who were selected for the mission were neither. Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle meticulously selected his band of men, the Doolittle Raiders. In turn, they received rigorous training for the mission ahead. They were well aware of the dangers, yet remained resolute in their commitment to the cause.

The mission's launch marked a pivotal moment for America. It entailed deploying bombers from an aircraft carrier—an unprecedented feat at the time. Despite the perils, the launch unfolded seamlessly, and the bombers steered towards their targets in Tokyo.

Skimming just above the waves to evade detection, the crew members' hearts thundered in their chests, acutely aware that a single misstep could annihilate the mission and cost their lives. The burden of their duty loomed immense, but their determination remained unshakable.

The raid proved triumphant. This ignited a surge of morale on the home front. Equally important, it demonstrated to the Japanese that the United States possessed the capability to retaliate even under the most daunting circumstances.

U.S. Air Force illustration by Tech. Sgt. Marianique Santos.

The Plan

The United States military needed a way to strike back against Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the plan to launch a bombing raid on Tokyo was risky. The late Richard Cole, the last surviving member of the raid, said in a 2014 interview with Northrop Grumman that he "wanted to do something to help the war effort and felt that the raid would be an opportunity to do so."

The Crew

The Doolittle Raiders were handpicked by Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle, who was known for his exceptional flying skills. The crew members were volunteers who had to meet strict qualifications and undergo extensive training. They knew that the mission was dangerous, but they were determined to do their part for the war effort.

The Doolittle Raid

The bombers flew low to avoid detection, and they dropped their bombs on military targets in Tokyo, as well as other Japanese cities. The raid was a success, but the aftermath was difficult for the crew members. They had to fly towards China, where they crash-landed or bailed out due to low fuel.

The Aftermath

After the raid, the Doolittle Raiders faced difficult circumstances. Some were captured by the Japanese and endured harsh treatment as prisoners of war. Others made it back to American lines, but the mission took a toll on their mental and physical health.

The Legacy

The Doolittle Raid was a turning point in the war and inspired a generation of Americans. The personal accounts of the Doolittle Raiders give insight into the impact the mission had on their lives. The raid also highlighted the bravery and determination of the American military, and it gave the United States a much-needed boost in morale. The legacy of the Doolittle Raid lives on today, as the last surviving members of the raid are remembered for their bravery and sacrifice.

A B-25 Mitchell takes off from the flight line at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., April 18, 2019. The B-25 was flown April 18, 1942, during the Doolittle Raid – a World War II operation to bomb Japan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Thomas Karol)

Little Known Facts about the Doolittle Raid

The Doolittle Raid was not only a military operation, but also a propaganda effort. The raid was designed to boost American morale after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor. By demonstrating that the US could strike back at Japan, even if only symbolically, the raid helped to restore confidence in the American people and military.

The raiders were not all experienced combat pilots. Many of the airmen were actually pilots-in-training, and some had never flown in combat before.

The raiders had to take off from an aircraft carrier, which was an unprecedented feat at the time. The B-25 was not designed to take off from a carrier deck. However, with a little ingenuity, the pilots and crew were able to modify the planes to make it possible.

The bombs dropped by the raiders damaged few industrial and military targets. That said, it was still a significant blow to Japanese morale. It showed that the Japanese mainland was not invulnerable to attack, and that the US was willing and able to strike back.

The raiders were honored with the Distinguished Flying Cross. All of the raiders were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, one of the highest honors for US military aviators. In addition, Doolittle was promoted to brigadier general and awarded the Medal of Honor for his leadership of the mission.