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Doolittle and USS Hornet @ 75: Shrinking Oceans, Rising Tides

An Army Air Force B-25B Mitchell bomber takes off from USS Hornet (CV-8) at the start of the raid, 18 April 1942. Note men watching from the signal lamp platform at right. (U.S. Navy photo, now in the collections of the National Archives/Released)
An Army Air Force B-25B Mitchell bomber takes off from USS Hornet (CV-8) at the start of the raid, 18 April 1942. Note men watching from the signal lamp platform at right. (U.S. Navy photo, now in the collections of the National Archives/Released)


By Adm. Scott H. Swift, Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, and Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, Commander Pacific Air Forces

April 18th marked the 75th anniversary of the famous Doolittle Raid, a daring mission that relied on land-based bombers to fly from sea. Sixteen Army Air Corps long-range, B-25 Mitchell Bomber aircraft launched for a one-way mission off the deck of the Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV 8).  The dauntless aircrews took off about 650 miles off the coast of Japan, some 250 miles further out than hoped out of fear their surprise mission had been discovered by enemy picket ships.

This infographic shares the history of the Doolittle Raid – how America struck back after Pearl Harbor. (U.S. Navy graphic by Annalisa Underwood/Released)


The American rallying response to the Dec. 7th 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor was innovative and bold, and required the courage and selfless American spirit for which our Greatest Generation was rightly nicknamed.

Much too lumbering to be ferried and launched from a ship, the bombers were stripped to the barest essentials. Simple broomsticks painted black to look like guns replaced the rear gunner positions. Additional rubber bladders filled with gasoline increased aircraft range.  Preparing for the unprecedented and perilous mission, the Navy and Air Force worked hand-in-hand with the pilots and aircrew, training intensively on the at-sea launch, cross-country and night-time flying, and low-altitude approaches to bombing targets. Even if their attack was successful, they couldn’t recover on the carrier, and the likelihood of them safely landing on an airfield was low.

Each aircraft was loaded with a single one-ton bomb, with the exception of the lead aircraft piloted by Lt. Col. James Doolittle himself, which had incendiary ordnance to provide targeting support for the aircraft that followed. On the morning of the mission, the bombers groaned as they struggled to achieve sufficient lift to fly off the USS Hornet’s pitching deck – even with winds exceeding 50 knots. Each survived the launch and eventually delivered their ordnance on planned targets. Ultimately, 15 of 16 of the aircraft crashed in (occupied) China, and the remaining B-25 landed in Vladivostok, Russia. Seven pilots were killed, and eight were taken prisoner.

Read: Doolittle Raiders Reflect on Their Moment in History


Despite the odds, the mission was a success. In America, it offered hope after a string of stinging defeats. Most historians agree it was of little tactical consequence on the Japanese mainland, or at sea, where the enemy picket ships were attacked and in some cases sunk by American Naval Task Force 16 which launched the bombers. Strategically, however, the daring raid demonstrated that the allied forces could penetrate the previously impenetrable military power in the Pacific, a fact that reverberated viscerally throughout Japan. The attack also muddled the Japanese strategy in the Pacific, as they began over-extending their forces to prevent another attack. This would lead to tide-turning at-sea American victories in the months ahead – first at Coral Sea in May, and then decidedly at Midway in early June.

The presence of capable, ready forces is as important today as it was 75 years ago. Miscalculation must be avoided lest the hemisphere relearn the bloody lessons from our collective past.

There is no denying the Pacific is a maritime and air theater. The area of responsibility envelopes 100 million square miles, more than half the Earth’s surface, from Antarctica to the Arctic circle and from the West Coast of the United States into the Indian Ocean. It takes a sufficiently-sized Navy and Air Force to meaningfully patrol the international sea and airspace. And for more than 70 years, all Pacific nations have benefited from the stability and prosperity which blossomed under the assurance of internationally recognized norms, standards, rules and laws.

Nor is there debate that a great deal of change has occurred in the seven decades since Doolittle’s audacious operation. For starters, Japan serves as a leader and committed partner dedicated to preserving the rules-based system that has allowed so many nations to achieve unprecedented levels of prosperity. More broadly, today the world and the Pacific are very different places technologically, economically, and geo-politically. And while the vast distance between shores remains, peoples who live and make their way in the Pacific are in many regards closer than ever. For generations, there are shared expectations of stable trade and security that all inhabitants have come to expect.

Fair trade and security requires commitment. In today’s environment, that commitment to security must be a joint effort crossing multiple domains … air, land, sea, undersea and in space and cyberspace.

As indicated this past November, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, said he wanted the Army to be capable of sinking ships in contested maritime areas. In so doing he simultaneously stressed the importance of all nations benefiting in the region and remaining committed to the same international norms that have resulted in our shared prosperity.

The Pacific Fleet took a page from the history books by installing “Third Fleet Forward,” designed to spark synergy between the Third and Seventh Fleets. Under this construct, the USS Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group is currently operating in the Western Pacific, and reports to Vice Adm. Nora Tyson, whose Third Fleet staff overseas operations from San Diego. The World War II Third Fleet counts among its alumni Adm. William “Bull” Halsey – the Task Force 16 commander during the Doolittle Raid.  Ultimately the command and control structure promises to give leadership more options — either in the event of waging war against an enemy, or by responding to humanitarian crises, such as the 2011 earthquake and tsunami near Japan involving more than 15,000 U.S. servicemembers, 140 aircraft and 24 naval ships.

Furthermore, last month a Pacific Air Forces B-1B Lancer bomber conducted a bilateral mission in the vicinity of Japan with Koku-Jieitai F-15J Eagles, followed by a bilateral mission with Republic of Korea Air Force F-15K Slam Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons carried out in ROK airspace. As part of U.S. Pacific Command’s more than 10-year Continuous Bomber Presence Mission, these bombers demonstrate the U.S.’s commitment to our allies and partners in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region and serve as a deterrent to potential adversaries. This is merely the latest example of Pacific partners’ determination to work together to preserve the arrangement that has benefited so many for so long.

Our forces serve humbly in the wakes of those who went before them. The legacy of the courageous WWII raid by Doolittle-USS Hornet is a regional commitment to an integrated, joint and allied capability in the expansive Pacific maritime theater.  An enduring presence – on the sea and in the air – that values partnerships and international norms and standards is the surest guarantor of continued prosperity for all. The price of any alternatives would be too steep.