1992 29¢ World War II: B-25 Takes off to Raid Tokyo
US #2697a from the World War II, 1942: Into the Battle sheet.

On April 18, 1942, Jimmy Doolittle led a daring raid against the Japanese in retaliation for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Within weeks of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt urged US forces to retaliate. Navy Captain Francis Low first suggested that twin-engine Army bombers could be launched from an aircraft carrier.

1991 29¢ World War II: Japanese Bomb Pearl Harbor
US #2559i – from the World War II, 1941: A World at War sheet

Famous aviator James “Jimmy” Doolittle, who had also served as an aeronautical engineer before the war, took over the planning and subsequently led the attack. Doolittle was a trailblazer and already famous for his daring string of aviation “firsts,” including several speed records. This mission would test those skills, as the B-25B Mitchell planes, their ability to launch from the aircraft carrier, and the flight distance were tremendous risk factors.

The crew’s fate was also a gamble – the B-25Bs could not land on the carrier, so after dropping their bombs they were to continue on to China. Once there, the men were vulnerable to capture by Japanese patrols. But Doolittle and his men were willing to take the risks and launched their attack, the Doolittle Raid, on April 18, 1942. Early that morning, about 650 nautical miles from Japan, Japanese forces spotted the combined fleet of two carriers, four cruisers, eight destroyers, and two fleet oilers.

1986 James Doolittle Commemorative Cover
Item #20027 – Commemorative Cover marking Doolittle’s 100th birthday
Doolittle Tokyo Raiders 1.5" Bronze Medal
Item #CNM11534 – Doolittle Raid bronze medal

Doolittle then made the tough decision to launch the bombers immediately – 10 hours and 170 miles earlier than planned. Despite having never taken off from a carrier before, all 16 B-25B Mitchells successfully launched from the deck of the USS Hornet. Within six hours, they arrived over Japan and bombed 16 targets, mostly military installations, in six cities.

Though none of the bombers were shot down during the raid, they were all destroyed because the pilots were unable to reach their refueling station in China. In the end, 67 of the total 80 pilots survived the raid. Eleven crewmen were killed or captured. Three of them were tortured and executed by the Japanese, who also massacred 250,000 Chinese civilians for aiding the US airmen.

2013 46¢ Medal of Honor: World War II
US #4822-23s – WWII Medal of Honor mint sheet

Due to the loss of all 16 aircraft and the relatively minor damage to the targets, Doolittle considered the raid a failure and expected to be court-martialed. However, the raid had dramatically boosted American morale and proved that Japan was vulnerable to attack. For his service, Doolittle was awarded the Medal of Honor and promoted two grades to brigadier general.

Additionally, all 80 of Doolittle’s Raiders received the Distinguished Flying Cross. It was a significant success that lifted American spirits and began to raise doubts in the Japanese leadership.

Click here for more on the raid from the National Museum of the US Air Force and click here for a neat video about the raid.

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  1. Far more important than the minimal physical damage done was the psychological effect of the raid. The Japanese military felt humiliated since the sacred soil of Japan had been violated, and Admiral Yamamoto was goaded into launching the ill-fated (for Japan) attack on Midway.

  2. A decent summary, but factual errors are significant. Doolittle was NOT a civilian aviator for the raid; he was a Lt. Col. in the US Army Air Corps. He had recorded multiple aviation records, seven flying as a civilian pilot, prior to 1941. Your text referred to Doolittle as a “civilian aviator” — wrong. B-25B was not an “unproven”aircraft; it had been tested, modified, and fielded with the US Army Air Corps. What was “unproven” was the capability to take off from the deck of an aircraft carrier.

  3. In an attempt to convey a death defying act the choice of words was not thoroughly explained. Although Jimmy Doolittle was in the military in the 20’s and he left it for furthering aviation in civilian life, he was invited back into the service of his country just prior to the outbreak of WWII. Throughout his career in aviation he sought ways to make the business better and safer. He is believed to have received the first aeronautical degree and was asked to use his acquired skills to complete this near impossible mission. He was so absorbed into this mission that he asked to lead it. His leadership inspired other to follow, long after the mission was history. Thanks, again, Mystic for keeping it alive.

  4. My wife and I were privileged to attend the 59th Doolittle reunion in 2001. We met and were able to briefly talk to several of the raiders. When I said hello to Lt. Colonel Robert Hite, I said as we often do, “Thank you for your service.” He replied, “Well, I didn’t do much. I was in a Japanese prison camp until the end of the war.” Can you imagine that? The last of the Doolittle Raiders to die was Colonel Richard “Dick” Cole. He passed away on April 9, 1019 in Texas at the age of 103.

  5. Great history about another Great American and his success in leading the first U.S. air attack directly over six cities in Japan. The detail and the responses above are ALL very interesting sincerely appreciated.. I learned a lot from this Mystic update. I knew about the Doolittle Raid but not as much as I know about it today. Thank you ALL very much !!

  6. It is a delight to read these articles, thank you Mystic. I’m retired now and had “heard”about this raid from my father (who was in the Air Force during the Korean Conflict- never recognized as a war by the US) but I never read or learned anything about it in school during the sixties. It was a mission that changed the course of history and one of the great WWII battles. Doolittle and all involved with the attack are real american heroes. It’s a shame that our educational system doesn’t teach the history of this great country better and truthfully. I guess today’s “woke’s” are just too busy changing what really happened and burning books. How do they expect the younger generation to know where they are going if they don’t know where they’ve been!

  7. Timm, I hear this criticism all the time, this or that isn’t covered in the history classes. I was a high school and community college history teacher for 38 years, and I can tell you that my collogues and I did the best we could to cover the vast history of the United States in the time we had. World War II is itself a huge story, and it is not possible to cover every single battle, incident, or personality in the couple of weeks that are available. I am going to say that in covering the Pacific War, the Doolittle Raid is not mentioned thin the textbook that I used, but I’m pretty sure that I at least mentioned it in class. Why did you bring up “woke” and burning books?

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