Why the Doolittle Raiders Deserve a Congressional Gold Medal

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(Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

(Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

You’re skipping from whitecap to whitecap below enemy radar aboard a flying gas can. It’s a heavily modified U.S. B-25 Mitchell bomber on the longest mission this plane has ever made. You have no fighter escort on a run this long. No radio for help, because it’s been stripped out to reduce weight. Most of the guns to defend the plane have also been removed. It’s two months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and the war in the Pacific has not been going very well for the U.S. But the Doolittle Raiders are about to change that.

On May 23, 2014, President Obama signed an act to award a Congressional Gold Medal to members of the Doolittle Raiders in recognition of their military service during World War II. Each member had already been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Two members had been awarded Silver Stars, and James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Roosevelt. Though the Doolittle Raids did little significant damage to Japan, it’s impossible to overstate the contribution they made to the Americans’ morale.

On April 18, 1942, 16 Air Force bombers carrying a total of 80 men took off from the USS Hornet expecting to attack different cities in Japan, including Tokyo. It was the first time that large, fixed-wing bombers were launched from a carrier in combat. The mission plan called for the bombers to launch so far east of Japan that it would be impossible for them to return the flattop. The idea was to continue west and land in China. They never made it.

Amazingly, every bomber did make it out of Japanese airspace after the attack, surviving anti-aircraft fire and even Japanese fighter assaults. One of the bombers landed safely outside of Vladivostok, in the Soviet Union. But the others were running out of fuel and the pilots knew they would never reach the airbases in China. They had to ditch every plane. The bombers had been forced to take off ten hours early—hundreds of miles farther away from the Japanese mainland than they had planned. A Japanese fishing trawler had spotted the fleet and U.S. commanders feared that it had radioed word of the surprise attack. They decided to launch early.

Three pilots died ditching the planes. The Japanese captured eight Americans in China. They executed three and one died in captivity. The remaining prisoners were later freed. The Soviet Union held and later released the crew that landed near Vladivostok. The attack might not have inflicted a lot of damage, but it demonstrated that the U.S. could strike the Japanese mainland, and forced their leaders to rethink their strategy in the Pacific.

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