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Doolittle with crew on U.S.S. Hornet
Doolittle with crew on U.S.S. Hornet
Photograph courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center


Late in March 1942 the crew members and their bombers went on board the aircraft carrier Hornet (CV8) at Alameda, near San Francisco. The Hornet rendezvoused with a Navy carrier task force commanded by Vice Adm. William F. Halsey.

The plan was to launch the bombers when the Hornet was 400 miles (644 kilometers) east of Tokyo. So secret was the operation that President Roosevelt was not told about it until the Hornet neared the planned bomber-launching site off Japan.

Doolittle personally informed the crews on the Hornet, “I don’t intend to be taken prisoner. I’m 45 years old and have lived a full life. If my plane is crippled beyond any possibility of fighting or escape, I’m going to have my crew bail out and then I’m going to dive my B-25 into the best military target I can find. You fellows are all younger and have a long life ahead of you. I don’t expect any of the rest of you to do what I intend to do.”

On April 18 large Japanese fishing boats being used by the Japanese as lookouts to warn of approaching ships, were sighted. U.S. gunfire sunk the boats, but they managed to send a warning message. High-ranking Japanese officials, noting that the U.S. ships were 670 miles (1,078 kilometers) away, believed that the carriers would have to get closer to Japan before they could launch aircraft.

The U.S. carrier force had to launch the bombers immediately, even though that meant a riskier length of flight. Led by Doolittle, the 16 planes took off, each carrying a ton of bombs and a crew of five. The bombers would be dangerously low on gas when, according to plan, they completed their mission and flew to bases in China, guided, planners hoped, by radio homing beacons. The raiders were then to become part of the U.S. Army forces being assembled there to help nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek fight Japan.


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