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USS Enterprise CV-6
The Most Decorated Ship of the Second World War

The Doolittle Raid
April 18, 1942

"This force is bound for Tokyo."
Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, 13 April 1942

In the wake of shock and anger following Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt pressed his military planners for a strike against Tokyo. Intended as revenge for Pearl Harbor, and an act of defiance in the face of a triumphant Japanese military, such a raid presented acute problems in execution. No working Allied air base was close enough to Japan. A carrier would have to approach within three hundred miles of the home islands for its planes to reach. Sending surface ships so close to Japan at that time would practically assure their destruction, if not from Japan's own surface forces, then from her ground-based planes or submarine forces.

Still Roosevelt insisted - demanded - that a way be found.

The first piece of the puzzle fell into place in the second week of January 1942. Captain Francis Lowe, attached to the Admiral Ernest King's staff in Washington, paid a visit to Norfolk, Virginia, to inspect the new carrier USS Hornet CV-8. There, on a nearby airfield, was painted the outline of a carrier, inspiring Lowe to pursue the possibility of launching ground-based bombers - large planes, with far greater range than carrier-based bombers - from the deck of an aircraft carrier.

Enterprise (foreground) and Hornet race towards Japan prior to launching the Doolittle Raid.

By January 16, Lowe's air operations officer, Captain Donald Duncan, had developed a proposal. North American B-25 medium bombers, with capacity for a ton of bombs and capable of flying 2000 miles with additional fuel tanks, could take off in the short distance of a carrier deck, attack Japanese cities, and continue on to land on friendly airfields in mainland China.

Under a heavy veil of secrecy, Duncan and Captain Marc Mitscher, Hornet's commanding officer, tested the concept off the Virginia coast in early February, discovering the B-25s could be airborne in as little as 500 feet of deck space. The plan now began to develop into action.

On April 8, 1942, the same day that the Americans and Filipinos defending Bataan Peninsula surrendered, Enterprise steamed slowly out of Pearl Harbor. With her escorts - the cruisers Salt Lake City and Northampton, four destroyers and a tanker - she turned northwest and set course for a point in the north Pacific, well north of Midway, and squarely on the International Date Line.

Six days earlier, Enterprise's sister ship Hornet had sailed from San Francisco, also accompanied by a cruiser and destroyer screen. Ploughing westwards, Hornet carried a somewhat unusual cargo. Arrayed across her aft flight deck, in two parallel rows, sat 16 Mitchell B-25 bombers: Army Air Force medium bombers. By all appearances, the bombers were too large to possibly take off from a carrier deck.

Certainly, this is what the men in Enterprise's task force thought when Hornet and her escorts hove into view early April 13. Rumors spread about the force's mission: some thought the bombers were being delivered to a base in the Aleutians, while others speculated they were destined for a Russian airfield on the Kamchatka peninsula. The mystery was solved later in the day, when Vice Admiral William F. Halsey signaled that Task Force 16 - two carriers, four cruisers and eight destroyers, supported by two tankers and two submarines - was "bound for Tokyo."

The plan was more daring than most of TF 16's 10,000 men could imagine. After refueling on April 17, Hornet, Enterprise - the force's Flagship - and four cruisers would leave the destroyers and tankers behind, to make a high speed dash west, towards the Japanese home islands. The next afternoon, Lieutenant Colonel James "Jimmy" Doolittle and his crew would take off alone, arrive over Tokyo at dusk, and drop incendiary bombs, setting fires to guide the remaining bombers to their targets. Three hours behind Doolittle, the remaining fifteen B-25s would be launched, just 500 miles from Tokyo. Navigating in darkness over open ocean, they'd be guided in by Doolittle's blazing incendiaries, and bomb selected military and industrial targets in Tokyo, as well as Osaka, Nagoya and Kobe.

Though the bombers could take off from a carrier deck, they couldn't land on a carrier. Instead of returning to Hornet, they'd escape to the southwest, flying over the Yellow Sea, then some 600 miles into China, to land at the friendly airfield at Chuchow (Zhuzhou). If all went well, the bombers would have a reserve of perhaps 20 minutes of fuel. Success depended on the carriers being able to approach within 500 miles of Japan undetected, and survival on the airmens' ability to evade the formidable air defenses expected near the target areas.

Hornet, the morning the raid was launched: "Some of the waves were actually breaking over the deck."

Things went according to plan until early April 18. Shortly after 0300, Enterprise's radar made two surface contacts, just ten miles from the task force. As the force went to general quarters, Halsey turned his ships north to evade the contacts, resuming the course west an hour later. Then, a little past 0600, LT Osborne B. Wiseman of Bombing Six flew low over Enterprise's deck, his radioman dropping a weighted message: a Japanese picket ship had been spotted 42 miles ahead, and Wiseman suspected his own plane had been sighted.

Halsey, however, forged ahead, the carriers and cruisers slamming through heavy seas at 23 knots. Still nearly two hundred miles short of the planned launching point, Halsey strove to give the Army pilots every possible advantage by carrying them as close to Tokyo as he dared.

Ninety minutes later, however, the gig was up. At 0738, Hornet lookouts spotted the masts of another Japanese picket. At the same time, radio operators intercepted broadcasts from the picket reporting the task force's presence. Halsey ordered the cruiser Nashville to dispose of the picket, and launched Doolittle's bombers into the air:


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