71st Anniversary of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo

Today is the 71st anniversary of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo (named after the mission commander, Lt. Col. James Doolittle). I heard a story on NPR about how the surviving Raiders get together each year on the anniversary of the raid. There are four who currently survive, three of whom could make it to the reunion. And this will be the last reunion.

The raid was more symbolic than practical. But symbols matter. It showed Americans that we could fight back, and it showed the Japanese that their acts of aggression would have negative consequences.

The raid caused negligible material damage to Japan only hitting non-military targets or missing completely, but it succeeded in its goal of helping American morale and casting doubt in Japan on the ability of the Japanese military leaders. It also caused Japan to withdraw its powerful aircraft carrier force from the Indian Ocean to defend their Home Islands, and the raid contributed to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s decision to attack Midway—an attack that turned into a decisive rout of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) by the U.S. Navy near Midway Island in the Central Pacific.

And, because I’m GenX and, therefore, incapable of proper, unalloyed sentimentality, it reminds me of a scene in Starship Troopers:

We’ve got one of their brains now. Pretty soon we’ll know how they think, and then we’ll know how to beat them. One day it’ll be over, and everyone will forget that this was the moment. This is when it turned. And it wasn’t the mighty Fleet, it wasn’t any fancy new weapon, it was a cap trooper named Zim who captured a brain[.]

For World War II, Doolittle’s Raid may have been the moment it turned.

Consideration of WWII also feeds into my skepticism of the cult of individualism that seems to be ascendant in the U.S. just about now. As an individual, I don’t really want others controlling my behavior or limiting my liberty. But, wars between nations demonstrate that an individual’s survival often depends on allowing one’s self to be incorporated into a larger organism. An individual can’t do those things necessary to create and project munitions across the Pacific to do damage to the Empire of Japan. Doolittle and his raiders were the tip of the spear. But the shaft of the spear and the body wielding it was the rest of the nation. Eleven of the raiders were heroically killed or captured in service to our nation.

Update This is also the 70th anniversary of Operation Vengeance where Admiral Yamamoto’s airplane was shot down. Naval intelligence had intercepted and decrypted a message revealing the admiral’s tour of the Solomon Islands and New Guinea.


  1. Carlito Brigante says

    This was quite a moment. Those were dark times in early 1942. The Doolittle raid was a moral booster.

    But the turning point would come that summer with the battle of Midway. If that battle had been lost and the US carriers destroyed, the West Coast would have been open to invasion.

    I am currently reading a David Halvertram’s book about the Korean War, “The Coldest Winter.” My father was in the Navy in Korea. IMO, the Korean situation is the last unresolved matter from WWII. And it may be unresolved for another 50 years.

  2. varangianguard says

    Halberstam, FWIW.

    Re: Midway. Didn’t help that the IJN allowed themselves to become a wee bit too smug. Their own war gaming showed that catastrophe could be at hand. Failed to follow doctrinal Force Concentration. Worked before, so why change? Well, I guess they found out why.

    The Yamamoto thing was punitive in nature, and somewhat personal. He could not have effected a change in how the war was going for the Japanese.

  3. Carlito Brigante says

    Yes, Halberstam. A great, if lengthy read. And most all Korean war writers, one that tells the unvarnished facts about MacArthur, the little soverign.

  4. Barry says

    After Pearl Harbor America, more or less reacted, to the crisis by uniting under a common purpose of defeating fascist enemies. From Doolittle’s Raid to VJ Day individual Americans, through many personal sacrifices, came together time and time again. This included re-ordering American life on the home front with rationing and nationalizing industries. After 9/11, we had more of a mixed reaction. For example, we were encouraged to keep shopping and to pay less taxes while supporting two foreign wars fought on the cheap. The individual’s consumerism and tax contribution were given a significance unheard of in 1942.

  5. says

    I’ve always regarded the Doolittle raid as little more than a stunt, its effect on morale notwithstanding. The Yamamoto mission, a story of remarkable heroism and split-second (analog!) timing has been unfairly overlooked in comparison.

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