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Doolittle Raid begun in South Carolina sees 80th Anniversary

On April 18, 1942, the Doolittle Raid shocked the Japanese and boosted the morale of Americans as the nation's first victory, a psychological one, of World War II.
Smithsonian Institution
On April 18, 1942, the Doolittle Raid shocked the Japanese and boosted the morale of Americans as the nation's first victory, a psychological one, of World War II.

The Doolittle Raid was America's first strike back at Japan after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, and it had its beginnings in Columbia, South Carolina.

80 years ago today, on April 18, 1942, U.S. bombers appeared in the sky over Toyko in one of the most daring military strikes in history. It became known as the Doolittle Raid.

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, the “date which will live in infamy,” bringing the United States into World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt immediately began thinking of a way to strike back.

According to James Scott of Mount Pleasant, author of the definitive Doolittle Raid book “Target Tokyo,” Roosevelt also needed a great leader to command this attack, and he found him in legendary stunt pilot James H. Doolittle.

“President Roosevelt came with this idea, sort of the 30,000 foot view, which was ‘I want to attack Japan,’ said Scott. “And he put it on his senior commanders to figure out a way to do it. It lands eventually in the lap of Jimmy Doolittle, and of course Doolittle has to figure out about cobbling all this mission together.”

The idea was to launch land-based Mitchell B-25 bombers from an aircraft carrier, because they could strike from a much greater distance than navy carrier planes. Military historian Bruce Cotner outlined Doolittle’s next step. “The next part that he had to figure out was ‘who’s got the most experience in the United States, in the Army Air Force, of flying the B-25?’ It was a new airplane. There was one group, the 17th Bombardment Group, which at that time was based in Portland, Oregon.

But the 17th was being moved, and Cotner said Doolittle recruited the crews of the 17th Bombardment Group not in Oregon where they first trained, but at their new home base: Columbia, South Carolina.

“It happened that the 17th was being transferred by order of the Army Air Force to Columbia Air Base,” Cotner said. “And the reason for that was, Columbia Army Air Base was brand-new, it had been built just prior to Dec. 7 to Army Air Force standards. It was decided it would be a B-25 training base, so the 17th was being ordered to Columbia Army Air Base to provide trained pilots to as cadre to train new pilots. That’s literally how that happened, and that’s not well-known.

“People think Jimmy Doolittle picked Columbia Army Air Base” to gather his potential recruits, said Cotner. “He didn’t.”

So, just as notorious Depression-era outlaw John Dillinger said he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is,” Doolittle came to Columbia because that’s where the crews he needed were being transferred. “Some of them come by plane, some of them come by train, they eventually all gather here,” said Scott, expanding on the role of South Carolina’s capital in the operation.

“This is where they first lay eyes on Jimmy Doolittle, the legendary stunt pilot that many of them grew up knowing about. And this of course is where that fateful question is asked: ‘We have a mission. Can’t tell you what it’s gonna be. It’s very, very dangerous. We only want volunteers.’ And so that is where these men ultimately raise their hand and made the decision that they were gonna become part of this historic, this legendary operation that today we know as the Doolittle Raid.”

After about two weeks beginning some training in Columbia in February, the operation was moved to Eglin Army Air Base in the panhandle of Florida for secrecy reasons. Columbia was a capital city, and people were around who may have observed what the pilots were doing. That was the last thing Doolittle wanted. Though today the Florida panhandle is choked with condos, hotels and tourists, in 1942 it was “the middle of nowhere,” said Cotner. Scott quoted one of the Raiders, who called the area “the boondocks.” “It really was, it was just empty down there,” he said.

Following their training to learn how to fly a bomber off a 467-foot carrier deck (they were used to 5000-to 6000-foot runways), the Raiders flew to San Francisco, where on April 2 they set sail for Japan. They had hoped to get as close as 450 miles from Tokyo before launching, but fate was not that kind.

Spotted by Japanese picket boats 800 miles out, Doolittle made a command decision to go ahead and launch, and 80 men in 16 planes took off much earlier than was planned, with barely the fuel to complete the raid and crash land short of their rendezvous point in China. Amazingly, 90 percent of the raiders escaped death or capture.

Scott said the physical damage done by the raid was minor, “a pinprick,” but the negative psychological effect on the Japanese was immense. Their homeland had been invaded and the emperor’s palace threatened. The shock led Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, who had conceived and led the attack on Pearl Harbor, to blunder into attacking America’s Midway Island, which turned the tide of the war.

“So Yamamoto’s plans to take Midway is greenlit, and of course Midway ends in a stunning disaster for the Japanese,” said the author. “They lose four carriers in the span of 24 hours. So Midway is this fulcrum, it’s this turning point in the war. And all because of Jimmy Doolittle. Midway may very well not have happened had the Doolittle Raiders not intervened at the precise moment they did.”

The raid’s effect on America’s morale was equally huge, said Scott. “After so many weeks of defeats and dour news, to suddenly wake up and find that your newspaper has headlines that Tokyo has been attacked, that American bombers had done it. It just gave the nation this pep rally, this cheer, this sense of ‘we can do it.’ It was just this amazing psychological blow against the Japanese but also to rally the American public.”

Ultimately, the Doolittle Raid was a lesson in courage, Cotner said. Scott added that it shows that it’s possible for a handful of dedicated individuals to defy the odds and change the course of history.


Tut Underwood is producer of South Carolina Focus, a weekly news feature. A native of Alabama, Tut graduated from Auburn University with a BA in Speech Communication. He worked in radio in his hometown before moving to Columbia where he received a Master of Mass Communications degree from the University of South Carolina, and worked for local radio while pursuing his degree. He also worked in television. He was employed as a public information specialist for USC, and became Director of Public Information and Marketing for the South Carolina State Museum. His hobbies include reading, listening to music in a variety of styles and collecting movies and old time radio programs.