Spotlight on the Doolittle Raiders

One of the organizations honoring servicemen and -women during last Veteran’s Day in Washington, D.C., was the American Veterans Center, sponsoring its ninth annual four-day conference. Presentations by heroes of World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well as recent returnees from Afghanistan and Iraq, were the highlights of the conference.

Of special interest to aviation history fans, five of Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle’s famous Tokyo Raiders were in attendance, representing the 80 men who made the first airstrike against the Japanese homeland after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Their “mission impossible” was flying 16 North American B-25B Army medium bombers off the deck of the Navy aircraft carrier Hornet on April 18, 1942, and bombing five major Japanese cities before escaping to China. Fifteen of these planes were lost, and three men died when the crews either bailed out or crash-landed. The 16th plane landed in Russian territory, and its crew was interned. Eight Raiders were captured, three were executed and one died of malnutrition.

Despite those losses, the raid was considered a psychological success because it gave the nation the first good news of WWII. It also caused the Japanese to recall several fighter units back home to defend against further raids (that were never planned)—a strategic shift that would have huge consequences at the next turning point in the war, the Battle of Midway. Doolittle was promoted to brigadier general and awarded the Medal of Honor, while all crew members received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

The Doolittle Raiders who participated in a panel discussion at the 2006 conference were Maj. Gen. David M. Jones, Colonel William M. Bower, Lt. Col. Richard E. Cole, Major Thomas C. Griffin and Master Sgt. Edwin W. Horton Jr. As the author of three books about their historic mission, I served as the panel moderator.

The Raiders also participated in wreath-laying ceremonies at the WWII, Air Force and Navy memorials, followed by a visit to the grave sites of General Doolittle and seven other Raiders at Arlington National Cemetery. The final event was the Ninth Annual Edward J. Herlihy Awards Banquet, honoring individuals and organizations “from the Greatest Generation through the latest generation” for their heroic contributions. The Doolittle Raiders each received the Audie Murphy Award, named for the most decorated soldier of WWII, commending them for their “distinguished service in the United States military during World War II.”


Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here