How America Got Revenge for Pearl Harbor (In 30 Seconds)

Michael Peck

Key point: The real recompense for the Doolittle flyers and the murdered Chinese civilians came on September 2, 1945, when Japan formally surrendered.

At noon on April 18, 1942, the citizens of Tokyo looked up into the sky and saw the impossible.

Zooming low over the imperial capital was a flight of twin-engined bombers. Nothing surprising about that in wartime Japan. Except that these aircraft were painted olive-drab, with red-white-and-blue stars on their wings and fuselage.

They were American planes dropping bombs on the sacred soil of Japan. As the crump of explosions and the drone of aircraft motors faded, and the air raid sirens belatedly wailed, Tokyoites asked themselves a fateful question:

What just happened?

The Doolittle Raid seventy-five years ago was more than one of history’s most momentous air attacks. It was also one of the most economical. The Allies dropped 2.7 million tons of bombs on Germany, and the United States dropped seven million tons on Vietnam. And still the Nazis and the Communists continued to fight. Yet sixteen B-25 bombers carrying perhaps sixteen tons of bombs managed to change the course of history.

It was a stunning reversal. In war, momentum is everything, and Japan was the one that had it in the early spring of 1942. Within four months, they had decimated the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, conquered Southeast Asia, the oil-rich Dutch East Indies and the islands of the Central Pacific, and were about to compel the last battered U.S. defenders in the Philippines to surrender.

America needed to reverse the momentum with a victory—any kind of victory—to bolster morale and take back the initiative. President Roosevelt had the right idea: days after Pearl Harbor, he called for the Japanese homeland to be bombed in retaliation. But how? Not with heavy bombers like the B-17, because with the air bases in the Philippines gone, land-based planes were out of range. Carrier-based aircraft? U.S. Navy carrier planes had a combat range of perhaps 250 miles, and the Navy didn’t dare sail its handful of precious carriers that close to Japan.

Then a Navy officer had a bright idea: was it possible for U.S. Army Air Force land-based bombers, with much longer range than carrier planes, to be launched off an aircraft carrier sailing near Japan? It turned out that the new twin-engined B-25B Mitchell medium bomber could perform the mission.

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