REVENGE SPED TOWARD Japan at nearly four miles per minute, borne upon olive-drab wings.
Flown by America’s finest aviator, the lone bomber approached the enemy shore at 200 feet. Three hours after taking off from the aircraft carrier Hornet, the forty-five-year-old pilot was determined to do something that had never been done: bomb Japan.
Piloting the twin-engine B-25 was Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle, a stocky, balding flier often called a daredevil in the press but best described as master of the calculated risk. In his twenty-five years of flying he had proven both his cool head and his hot hands, winning prestigious races, setting records, and pioneering the crucial science of instrument flight. An oft-published photo showed him standing before his stubby Gee Bee racer with his Phi Beta Kappa key visible beneath his leather jacket. With a Ph.D. in aeronautics, he spoke with an engineer’s precision, saying “aeroplane” and describing friends as “chaps.”
Four months earlier, when Japanese carrier aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor, Doolittle had been a major conducting special projects for General Henry H. Arnold, the Army Air Forces chief. America was still reeling from Tokyo’s stunning blow against Hawaii as a nonstop onslaught rolled up U.S. and Allied forces across the Pacific: from Guam to Wake Island to the Philippines, East Indies, and the Asian mainland. The nation and President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for retribution.
Thus was born the First Special Aviation Project. Oddly, it was the brainchild of a submarine officer, Captain Francis Low. He conceived the idea of launching long-range Army bombers from an aircraft carrier and proposed a daring concept: a hit-and-run raid against Japan itself, launched well beyond the limited reach of Navy carrier aircraft. If all went well, sixteen B-25 MitchellsÑnamed for the late airpower advocate William “Billy” MitchellÑwere to land in China after bombing Japan.
It was a high-risk operation, calling for volunteer aircrews who were told only that they would be “out of the country for two or three months.” More men stepped forward than could be used.
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