Monday, April 18, 2011

The Doolittle Raid 69th Anniversary: Greatness Endures

April 18, 1942, 69 years ago today, my father and the rest of the Nashville crew were participating in the most famous naval raid in American history. Few men survive from that day but of those that do, most have vivid memories of the event that became legend.

What would become known as the “Doolittle Raid” (often referred to as the Halsey-Doolittle Raid in navy circles) was an ingenious, audacious plan born of defeat, necessity, American resiliency and President Roosevelt’s insistence on hitting back at Japan both for military and morale reasons.

By Spring 1942, much of the backbone of the US Navy was at the bottom of the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor, continuing to ooze oil, the overwhelmed and undersupplied Marines on Wake Island had surrendered, Guam had fallen, American and Filipino forces had been defeated in the Philippines after a prolonged stubborn resistance, Japan had invaded the Solomons, Burma and Singapore, attacked Port Moresby, Australia and had swept the British Navy from the Pacific. The expanding Japanese empire of conquest stretched over 6,000 miles at its perimeter and 320,000 Allied soldiers, airmen, marines and sailors had been killed, wounded or captured at a cost of 15,000 Japanese casualties. The war was at a critical low point for America and the Allies and good news was nonexistent. That was about to change.

The very idea that land based bombers taking off from the short, pitching deck of an aircraft carrier came from Navy Captain Francis Low, an anti-submarine officer, when he saw both bombers and the painted outline of a carrier deck at the naval air station in Norfolk, Virginia. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, a brilliant aviation pioneer, subsequently planned out the complex details of the attack and hand-picked his volunteers, none of whom knew exactly what they were volunteering for at the time. The mission was so secret that not even the commander of the USS Hornet, Captain Marc A. Mitscher, the ship designated to launch the attack, knew of it until the planes were loaded aboard the ship on April 1, 1942 in Alameda, California. Only then was he told of the plan to attack Japan. You have to wonder if he had a moment of thinking this was a very bad April Fools joke.

Nashville played a critical role in Task Force 16 when Japanese pickett ships were encountered 600 miles from Japan, 200 miles short of the planned launch distance. Nashville was ordered to “quickly” destroy the pickett ships before they could send a message to Tokyo that an American fleet had been sighted. A more difficult target could not have been imagined. Rough seas, with waves that washed over the bow of Nashville and against the superstructure several stories high, combined with poor visibility and a small, bobbing target frequently obscured by crests of swells presented a challenge. But Nashville prevailed, sinking the Nito Maru and taking her survivors prisoner as Doolittle’s Raiders were forced to launch well beyond their fuel range.

The story of the bravery and tenacity of the Raiders is well known, as it should be. But the norm for telling that story has become one of too often downplaying the damage done as to be almost superficial and not giving full measure to the war changing impact of the raid itself. The fact is that the bombers hit not only Tokyo but also Yokosuka, Kobe and Nagoya. The Japanese suffered 50 dead, 400 injured and damage to oil tanks, steel mills, power plants and army barracks, with 90 buildings destroyed. In addition, the aircraft carrier Ryuho was bombed and her launch delayed until November. While compared to latter, massive B29 bombing raids against Japan the damage was indeed minor, but for the time, it was more than the pinprick described in history books and articles.

Most significantly of course was the tremendous impact it had on the Japanese psyche and ultimately a flawed, fatal Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) battle strategy. The Japanese people and military were absolutely stunned that an attack could be made on the home islands. Radio JOAK in Tokyo just that morning, made the statement that such a thing would never happen and yet, just as the capital was finishing up an air raid drill that no one took seriously, American land based bombers appeared out of thin air to bomb several cities, including the capital where the Emperor-God lived.

The IJN immediately pulled back significant forces to protect the home islands including Admiral Chuichi Nagumo’s 5 fast carrier groups that had already sunk or driven the British Navy from the Indian Ocean. Admiral Yamamoto became convinced the American fleet must be lured into a decisive battle and destroyed and thus planned the ill-fated operation at Midway that dealt a slow but sure deathblow to the IJN, moving the Japanese from an expansionist, aggressive strategy to a defensive one for the remainder of the war. They never recovered. It is not inaccurate to state that the Doolittle Raid changed the course of the war and may have in fact shortened it by many months.

Today, we salute all of the members of Task Force 16:

The Doolittle Raiders
USS Hornet CV8
USS Enterprise CV6
USS Northampton CA26
USS Vincennes CA44
USS Salt Lake City CA25
USS Nashville CL43
USS Balch DD363
USS Gwin DD433
USS Benham DD397
USS Grayson DD435
USS Ellet DD398
USS Monssen DD436
USS Fanning DD385
USS Meredith DD434
USS Sabine AO25
USS Cimarron AO22
USS Thresher SS200
USS Trout SS202

By the end of 1942 the Hornet, Vincennes, Benham, Northampton, Monssen and Meredith would be sunk. By the end of the war, only the Enterprise, Nashville and Grayson survived. And on this 69th anniversary, only 5 Doolittle Raiders are alive, with the last of the pilots, Bill Bower, passing away in January 2011 at age 93.

Today, the USS Hornet CV12, the replacement ship for USS Hornet CV8 of Doolittle Raid fame and herself a highly decorated WWII veteran, is a floating museum in Alameda, California, at the very same dock where the Hornet CV8 loaded the B-25s and sailed into history. We salute all members of Task Force 16 for their bravery and contribution.

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