225 feet. 75 yards. The distance between the goal line on one end of a football field and the 25 yard line at the other end. 225 feet. Four ship lengths of a World War II B-25 Mitchell bomber end-to-end.
225 feet was how much open flight deck on the USS Hornet Lieutenant Colonel James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle had to get his fullyladen B-25 airborne some 68 years ago today. If the famous aviator couldn’t pull it off, if the 15 other bombers parked so tightly on the aircraft carrier that wings and tails actually overhung the Pacific Ocean lapping at her waterline, the secret mission upon which hung the hopes of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be doomed.
The USS Hornet (CV-8) must have appeared an odd sight to interested onlookers as she slipped under the Golden Gate Bridge on April 2. It’s not every day you see a carrier set sail with 16 landbased bombers lashed to her deck. The top brass figured if a Japanese spy saw the ship, that the only sane surmise would be that the carrier was simply shuttling Army Air Corps bombers.
But a few days out of San Francisco Bay the Hornet rendezvoused with the carrier Enterprise under the command of Vice Admiral William F. Halsey himself. Three heavy cruisers, a light cruiser, two fleet oilers and eight destroyers headed west with Hornet as Doolittle was at last able to brief his complement of 80 flyers on the details of their secretive escapade.
"Doolittle’s Raiders" were en route to strike the first retaliatory blow for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in typically American, brazen fashion. Destination: Tokyo.
The Mitchell B-25 twin-engine medium bomber had not yet been tested in combat. With America thrust into a two-front world war, there had been no time to actually test the air frame of the new bird. The first of the ships exhibited an inherent instability issue due to the design angle of the wing, a problem which today would likely delay production or cause a project cancellation. But back when America still worked, the engineers simply stopped production, bent the outer few feet of the wing downward, solving the problem, and resumed production. The simple fix gave the B-25 a slight gullwing appearance.
Doolittle, an accomplished airman and aeronautical engineer, knew the bird would fly. For two weeks at sea, he and his pilots went over the mission details: Hornet would get them within 600 miles of Japan for their launch; they’d fly at nearly 275 miles per hour at wave-top level to escape detection, bomb strategic targets in Tokyo and other cities such as Yokohama, then make their getaway to the west to land on air strips hastily carved out in China.
The seas were rough on April 17 as the oilers refueled the task force and then made off to the east with the destroyers. The carriers and cruisers then dashed westward, closing the distance to Japan.
But as April 18 dawned the Americans were discovered by a fishing trawler which, though quickly sunk by the USS Northampton, managed to radio a warning to Tokyo. Doolittle’s Raiders would have to launch prematurely to have any chance at surprising the Japanese. 225 feet. Some high school quarterbacks fling a football that far, you know. Now the success of a mission Roosevelt later proclaimed to have been "launched from our secret base in Shangri-La" depended on Doolittle coaxing his 50-foot long bomber into the air off a wildly pitching aircraft carrier in that distance.
He did, of course. Hanging on her props, his Mitchell clawed her way up to the wild cheers of the Hornet’s crew. Buoyed by Doolittle’s effort, the other ships successfully took off. They bombed Tokyo and gave beleaguered America something to cheer about.
Sixty-nine of Doolittle’s men survived that raid, but now only eight are around for the 2010 reunion. Near Dayton, Ohio, the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base maintains 80 silver goblets and a bottle of 1896 Hennessy cognac. When but two Raiders remain, they’ll open the bottle and drink a toast to their comrades. 1896? Doolittle was born that year. And he was famous long before leading the raid he initially believed a failure, given that he lost all his planes.
But the raid caused Japan to recall her aircraft carriers to protect their suddenly vulnerable homeland, and to conceive an attack upon Midway Island, a battle won by the United States Navy which turned the tide of the Pacific war.
And as for Jimmy Doolittle? He was promoted to Brigadier General, awarded the Medal of Honor, and his Raiders all received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Yes sir, Doolittle did much that day, on April 18 in 1942. And in just 225 feet.
Nat Harwell is a long-time resident of Newton County. His columns appear regularly on Sundays.