Three Myths About The Doolittle Raid From World War Two

Three Myths About The Doolittle Raid

The Doolittle Raid is one of the most famous events of World War II.

It is also, on some levels, the most misunderstood

The basics are correct. Col. Jimmy Doolittle led an elite team of 80 men on one of the most dangerous missions of the Second World War. They took medium-range bombers off of the deck of an aircraft carrier,Doolittle Raid a feat that had never before been done. In revenge for the sneak attack on Peal Harbor, the Doolittle Raiders flew low over the ocean on their way to bomb Japan. The Japanese people, who had been assured by their Emperor that they were invulnerable to foreign attack, reacted in shock and horror at the terrifying daytime attack. The Doolittle Raiders then attempted to fly to China, unable to return to the ship or to American soil. Some of the Raiders survived, some were killed on impact when their planes crashed, some were captured and killed. Click here to read an exclusive account of one of the Raiders who was killed.

All of that is true.

However, the conventional wisdom of the Doolittle Raid is that it was designed by Doolittle, was merely a psychological victory for the USA that did little material damage to the Japanese, and was simply a heroic and interesting footnote to the huge war in the Pacific.

That is not true!

When we look deeper at the Doolittle Raid, we realize it was far more effective, more heroic and more important than conventional wisdom suggests. Let’s look at three myths about the Doolittle Raid.

Myth # 1: The Initial Plan For The Doolittle Raid Was The Brainstorm Of Jimmy Doolittle

Jimmy Doolittle was one of the most honorable, heroic and brilliant men ever to serve in the USA Army. His life before, during and after World War II is filled with dazzling achievement, personal courage, Jimmy Doolittlepatriotic service and an inspiring combination of humility and integrity. He was one of the greatest pilots in the world, winning race after race, medal after medal, setting record after record. He was the first American to hold a PhD in aeronautical engineering. Doolittle was a superb teacher and leader. However, the initial plan for what would be the Doolittle Raid did not originate with him. It was the brainchild of Navy Capt Francis Low. He was a brilliant submariner with a history of bold creativity. He took the idea to Admiral Ernest King. Seeing the great possibility, he refined it with Captain Donald B. “Wu” Duncan, his aviation expert. They took the plan to Army Air Force Chief Of Staff “Hap” Arnold.

When they were convinced the plan was feasible, they turned to Doolittle. He was the only man with the experience, skill, and organizational skills necessary to lead the raid. Typical of Doolittle’s humility, he always gave credit to all the men who designed the raid and, of course, to the brave men who carried it out.

Myth #Two: The Raid Was A Psychological Victory That Did Little Material Damage

While the Doolittle Raid did not inflict the massive damage of the huge attacks against Germany, it is wrong to assume it did little material damage. A more accurate assessment would be that the Doolittle Raid did tremendous damage relative to the amount of ordinance the stripped-down places carried. Every one of the sixteen planes reached either their primary or secondary targets and each dropped all of their bombs. Among the targets that were badly damaged:


Targets Hit:  
1. Plane 2344 – Armory Area
2. 2292 – Army Arsenal
3. 2270 – Steel, Gas, Chemical Works
4. 2283 – Oil Tank, Large Factory
5. 2261 – Factories, Residential Area
6. 2303 – Tokyo Gas & Electric Company
7. 2250 – Steel Works, Residential Area
8. 2249 – “Sakura” Refinery & Tanks
9. 2278 – Ogura Refinery, Factories
10. 2247 – Dock Yard, Ship, Crane

(Note: Chart taken from this superb site)

By knocking out major oil refineries, cutting power to large sections of Tokyo and badly damaging important factories creating war material, the Doolittle Raid caused interruptions to the Japanese economy. Significantly, the bombs dropped by Lt. McElroy’s crew

Crew No. 13 (Plane #40-2247, target Yokosuka): 37th Bombardment Squadron, front row: Lt. Edgar E. McElroy, pilot; and Lt. Richard A. Knobloch, copilot; back row: Lt. Clayton J. Campbell, navigator; Master Sgt. Robert C. Bourgeois, bombardier; and Sgt. Adam R. Williams, flight engineer/gunner. Image: Pacific Air Forces.

Crew No. 13 (Plane #40-2247, target Yokosuka): 37th Bombardment Squadron, front row: Lt. Edgar E. McElroy, pilot; and Lt. Richard A. Knobloch, copilot; back row: Lt. Clayton J. Campbell, navigator; Master Sgt. Robert C. Bourgeois, bombardier; and Sgt. Adam R. Williams, flight engineer/gunner. Image: Pacific Air Forces.

hit an almost-completed Japanese ship, knocking it out of action until repairs could be made half a year later. The Japanese Navy dearly needed that ship and every ship they could throw into the fray as the huge battles of the Pacific (especially the Battle Of Midway, loomed on the horizon.

Myth # 3 – The Doolittle Raid Was A Minor Battle

The Japanese people were panicked by the raid. More important, the Japanese military completely misread the nature of the raid.They did not believe the bombers could have taken off from a ship. They committed a huge number of men to searching for a nonexistent USA base in China from which they assumed the raid began. While slaughtering 250,000 Chinese, the Japanese foolishly tore up airfields that they could have used! Most significantly, they presumed Japan was under direct threat of invasion or air attack. They made two key miscalculations as a result. First, they withdrew key ships and troops, relieving pressure on the British Navy in the South Pacific. Japan’s main aircraft carrier task force, led by five large, fast carriers—with its best naval aircraft and aircrews—under command of Admiral Nagumo, was recalled to Japan. Second, believing Midway Island was the source of the raid, Admiral Yamamoto made the key decision to move ahead quickly with an attack on Midway. The disastrous defeat of the Japanese at Midway changed the course of the war. From then on the Japanese were on the defensive and the Allied forces slowly pushed them back into defeat.

The Doolittle Raid, then, can be seen as a turning point in the Second World War!


148 thoughts on “Three Myths About The Doolittle Raid From World War Two

    • Maddie,

      As you can imagine, when a power plant is blown up and electric lines are knocked down, it takes time and people and replacement parts to repair them. The loss of the ship for six months was important!

    • Molly,

      They brutally murdered 250,000 Chinese citizens that they thought had helped us. Those poor people were slaughtered. Isn’t it amazing that so many Chinese people, knowing the danger, still helped the Raiders! They were brave!

    • Nathan,

      All of the planes used were lost and only two pictures remained of the damage they had done. The bombs all did damage, but did not do the destruction that would have occurred if we had been able to use super large planes with lots of bombs.

    • Camden,

      72 of the Raiders made it home alive. Many of them continued to serve in the Army on bombing runs in Asia, Africa or Italy! 8 died as a result of the raid: 3 Killed In Action: 2 off the coast of China, 1 in China; 8 POW: 3 executed, 1 died in captivity. The other 4 POW eventually returned.

  1. What made Japan think that the medium plane couldn’t take off on a boat, also why did they blow up the airfields? If they were there then it couldn’t have been are airfield.

    • Mason,

      In order to get the proper speed and thrust, a B25B bomber like those used in the Doolittle raid would normally need about 1400 feet of runway. The deck of an aircraft carrier was only about 500 feet. If they couldn’t get the takeoff correct, the planes would’ve gone down into the ocean! Each of the pilots had to learn and practice in extremely difficult take off that had never really been tried before. The Japanese discs droit airfields in China because they thought that’s where the planes took off from. They were completely fooled!

    • Anna,

      The Doolittle raid did not start World War II. The war had been going on in Europe since September 1939. The attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 brought the US into the war. The Japanese government was humiliated that an American attack could hit their supposedly invulnerable homeland. To try and comfort their people, they marketed as the “Do Nothing Raid” and lied by saying that they had shut down several of the planes.

    • Ian,

      The Doolittle raid was never designed to defeat Japan. The raid was designed to scare the Japanese and to pay them back in some measure for what they had done at Pearl Harbor. At the time of the Doolittle raid, the United States was not capable of attacking Japan in any larger way.

    • Doolittle was saved and protected by Chinese civilians. As you can see on the other essay on my website about the raid, some of his men were not so fortunate. Those captured by the Japanese were tortured and in some cases killed. Doolittle survived without being captured as did many of his men.

    • Lauren,

      The most repeated myth is that the Doolittle raid was very minor. It actually had a huge effect on Japanese war strategy and helped turn the tide of battle toward an American victory in the Pacific.

    • Doolittle’s planes had to be stripped of almost anything that added weight. The reason for that is that a traditional bomber was too heavy to take off from the deck of an aircraft carrier and they would need so much fuel in order to bomb Japan and then get to China. Even the guns were taken out of the planes and replaced with broomsticks painted black! Doolittle’s planes each held only four bombs. Each of the four bombs weighed about 500 pounds. The land-based bombers that attacked Germany carried far more bombs and power.

    • Doolittle first was in China for many months before being rescued. He earned the Congressional medal of honor and was promoted to general. He served with great distinction and courage in the air Corps in North Africa and then over Europe for the rest of the war. He was involved in many major attacks and always earned the respect of his man and his superiors.

    • Brooklyn,

      It is incorrect to refer to it as a battle. It was a lightning fast RAID. Because Doolittle’s planes did not have the guns to carry on an air battle, his men had been trained to drop their bombs quickly on their designated targets and leave as fast as possible. Remember they had very little fuel to get to China and could not stay over Japan very long. One of the most famous accounts of the Doolittle raid was written by Capt. Ted Lawson. He titled his account “30 Seconds over Tokyo.”

    • Denisse,

      Doolittle taught pilots as part of his command. He was a brilliant man with a PhD. The Army often assigned him to positions where he would be teaching the men. And in preparing for the Doolittle Raid, he had to teach his men almost everything about the unique type of flying they would be doing – his men had no combat experience!

    • Jordy,

      The raid was stunningly effective in raising American morale and scaring the Japanese people. While the overall material damage wasn’t you, the psychological victory was enormous. And, as I indicated in the article, it caused the Japanese to make terrible errors in judgment regarding their war strategy.

    • Noemi,

      Some of the men were captured by the Japanese. Please read the other blog entry for a detailed description of their treatment. One crew became POW in Russia. The majority of the men were protected by Chinese people who did everything they could to help them before they could be reunited with Allied forces.

    • Eric,

      The Raiders had been forced to take off much farther away from Japan than the original plan called for. Despite the incredibly skillful piloting of the planes, most of them ran out of fuel just as they were approaching the Chinese mainland. Some were forced to ditch in the ocean and others crashed just inland. One crew crashed in Russian territory. One of the things I find so amazing is that the Raiders new that it would be very difficult to have a safe landing in China and yet they went willingly because of their patriotic devotion to duty.

  2. Why did the Dooliittle raid that caused some damage end up being the turning point in the war and helping us with the victory at Midway?

    • Blake,

      As I mentioned in the article, the Japanese military did not understand the nature of the raid and reacted very poorly. For reasons mentioned in the article, it hastened their defeat at the Battle of Midway.

  3. Why did Japanese think that the US attacked from somewhere in China? Didn’t they see the air crafts that TRIED to go to China after the raid? What were the reasons that made them believe the raid was coming form China?

  4. Did the Japanese Emperor know that the U.S. would attack for revenge,even though he told his people that they wouldn’t?

    • Sophia,

      While the Japanese leadership certainly knew that the Americans were angry and would want revenge, they did not see any realistic way the Americans could launch an attack against the mainland with the equipment available to them at that moment. They vastly underestimated the creativity and daring of Doolittle and his men!

  5. You say after the loss for the Japanese at Midway they became more defensive. Why did they become defensive? They had lost before why was this a large turning point? Was it because of the Americans vantage point?

    • Zoe,

      The Japanese lost many ships and planes at the Battle of Midway. One of their best admirals was killed there as well. They had to go on the defensive because they lacked enough ships and planes to continue an offense of war after their defeat at the Battle of Midway.

  6. Hey Mr. Bradford, I have a question I was hoping to ask you that made no sense to me. In the text above, you mention that the Japanese tore up airfields that they could have used. Why would the do that, that makes no sense? It is almost like they are fighting against themselves!

    • Syd,

      That is a great question – I understand what you’re asking. The Japanese response was made out of panic and fear – they worried that American planes might be hidden in China and would attack the mainland again. Therefore by destroying the airfields, the Japanese military thought they were protecting their nation.

    • Zidane,

      Had the Japanese spotted the hornet and its support ships, they absolutely would have attacked them. The American Navy had moved them into position where the Japanese did not see them and therefore could not attack them.

    • Jacob,

      Each of the airplanes had a different name assigned to it by their crew. Lieut. Ted Lawson, who lost his leg as a result of his crash landing, had named his plane The Ruptured Duck! The ship they took off from was the USS Hornet. Remember, because of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the fact that American forces were on the defensive in South Asia, the Navy did not have a lot of ships to risk on such a dangerous mission.

    • Amber,

      That is a superb question that can’t be answered very well in a short space. Until the battle of Midway, the Japanese Navy had defeated the Allied navies throughout South Asia. They controlled many islands and had inflicted many defeats on the American, British, and Australian forces. After the defeat of the Japanese at the Battle of Midway, their Navy began withdrawing toward the Japanese homeland in order to set up a defensive. From Midway on, the Allies were on the offensive and the Japanese were on the defensive.

    • Aurora,

      The military leadership of Japan had to try and convince their people that little damage had been done. In reality, the military leaders were humiliated and angry by an attack that they did not prevent.

  7. Why would they slaughter 250,000 Chinese when the Japanese could have took them as hostages and make the Chinese Empire surrender? Was it necessary to kill all those innocent people?

    • Katrina,

      The Japanese military would not have had the ability to house a quarter of the million POWs. And they would have no guarantee that the Chinese government would surrender. After all, the Chinese did not surrender when 250,000 of their own people were killed. The deaths of so many civilians is a great stain on the Japanese military.

    • Chantal,

      The Chinese were at war with Japan. However the Japanese army was much more technologically advanced than the Chinese and was able to defeat them militarily. Our Chinese allies bravely protected the Doolittle Raiders even at the cost of their own lives.

  8. What are some of the places the Raiders were captured? How did some of them make it out alive? Also, were any women allowed to participate in these attacks or were they not allowed to fight in the war? Lastly, was Captain Jimmy Doolittle killed in action, killed while he was a POW, or did he live?

    • Kylie,

      About 1 million women served in uniform for the USA during World War II but none of them flew on the Doolittle mission. Doolittle himself went on to serve with great distinction throughout the war and lived a long and highly honored life. He passed away in 1993 at the age of 96 years old. When he died there was tremendous morning among the military of America who recognize that he had been one of the all-time great commanders.

    • Ashley,

      The ships carrying the Doolittle Raiders were spotted by a Japanese picket boat and so the Raiders had to take off earlier than they had planned. This is part of the reason fuel was so low. Flying time from where they took off was about six hours and they only stayed over Japan long enough to drop their bombs and then head to safety in China.

    • Hector,

      The Japanese were unable to shoot down the planes. They simply did not have good antiaircraft defenses available and although they did run air raid drills, they did not truly believe that American planes could reach the Japanese main island.

    • David,

      The Japanese did not believe that it was possible for the bombers to have taken off from the deck of the ship. Since they knew that the planes had crashed in China they assumed they had taken off from China.

  9. Why didn’t anybody think of doing this before and since it has never been done, don’t you think it’s too big of a risk?

    • Bradley,

      The attack on Pearl Harbor was in December 1941. President Roosevelt immediately asked the Army to come up with a plan to strike back’s Japan. The Doolittle raid took place less than six months later – very quick response when you consider all of the logistical problems they had to overcome.

  10. Did the Doolittle Raid cause any other kinds of material damage that you did not state? If so, what are other ways that material damage was caused?

    • Jessica,

      Many World War II battles were fought with huge armies and navies. The use of 16 lightly armed planes could not be considered a major battle. But it did have important and unexpected consequences!

  11. In the Doolittle Raid Why would you only send 80 men if there was a lot more people you had to defeat? Also why would they call it the Doolittel Raid if it wasn’t his idea? Yeah he was the one who made the whole thing happen and lead it through but this would have never happened if it wasn’t for the guy who came up with the idea. Did they give any recognition or credit for who actually came up with the plan?

    • Annie,

      The Raid was never designed to defeat the Japanese; it was designed to scare them and to make a point about the American resolve to fight back. Doolittle and the military always gave credit to the men who developed the initial plan. Doolittle was a humble man! The Raid is named for him because he was responsible for every phase of it. He even flew the first plane off the deck of the Hornet!

  12. •Who made those miscalculations in the third myth?
    •Why hadn’t Japan taken precautions and prepared themselves for an attack from the U.S.?
    •How did the Chinese responded to Japan slaughtering them?

    • Angela,

      The Bombers, as used by the Doolittle Raiders, were flying well outside of the range that had been established for them. They were being asked to fly in a way they were not designed for!

    • Evan,

      The men in the Doolittle Raid did NOT believe it was a suicide mission. They knew it was dangerous, unprecedented and very risky. The fact that so many returned alive is proof that the basic plan worked.

    • Jackson,

      The Japanese felt that by destroying the American fleet at Pearl Harbor that the USA would be unable to stop the Japanese navy from carrying out their objectives in the South Pacific.

    • Carolina,

      The Air Force absolutely teaches about Doolittle! Although the tactics and equipment would not be used today, he is held up as a model of courage and leadership. I think that is the right thing to do!

  13. Hello! My question will be,
    What do you think would happen if the Japanese actually thought that the bomber could fly off from a ship… do you think they would have been more prepared for the attack, and found some way to do something to stop them? Or would things still happen anyway?

    • Mikayla,

      Interesting question. Even assuming that the Japanese knew it was possible, they would still have seen it as very unlikely, given how far the Hornet was from Japan. They had run an air alert earlier, so they were at least thinking about an attack, but the skill and daring of the Doolittle Raiders was beyond their thinking!

    • Grace,

      The Japanese did not have forces able to attack the USA mainland even before the Doolittle Raid. After the Battle of Midway they were on the defensive and their ability to resupply their losses declined rapidly.

  14. Mr Bradford,
    Do you know the nickname of the plane that Lt Travis Hoover piloted in the Doolittle Raid ?….I have searched online and have yet to find this answer…Also wanted to say what a great article…Thank You…

  15. they say, because of the international dateline,they arrived china one day earlier than planned. i do not understand, isn’t it one day later?

  16. Pingback: The Leader Of One Of The Most Daring Raids Of WWII Survived By Landing In A Huge Pile Of Shit  – TechKee

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