Monday, April 02, 2012

Striking Back at Japan: USS Hornet (CV-8) Sails from Alameda (70 Years Ago)

Two weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pressed the senior officers of the Army and Navy to find a way to strike back direct at the Japanese home islands as quickly as possible. The charge was daunting. The Army Air Corps didn't possess any bombers at the time with the range from what Pacific bases we had left, and the Navy's aircraft carriers were perhaps too valuable to risk using their regular carrier-based aircraft.

Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander-in-Chief of the United States Fleet, was told in early January, 1942 that it could be possible for twin-engine bombers from the Army to take off from one of our carriers. On February 3, 1942 two North American Aviation B-25 Mitchell medium bombers were flown off the newly-commissioned USS Hornet (CV-8) as the carrier left Norfolk Naval Station destined for the Pacific War. The successful takeoff showed that a strike at Japan could be accomplished.

The B-25 - a new part of the arsenal and as yet an unproven combat aircraft - was chosen because it was able to be modified to give it enough range to reach targets in Japan with a launch point far enough away to lessen the risk to the carrier, carry 2,000 pound bomb-load, and still leave enough endurance for the planes to reach friendly airfields in China. The 17th Bomb Group (Medium) was chosen to provide the crews for the mission. Their commander was then-Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle.

The 17th Bomb Group moved to Columbia, South Carolina to begin training in secret for the mission. All the pilots were told was that they were being asked to volunteer for an extremely hazardous mission - and that they would only be given 450 feet to get their fully-laden bombers into the air.

While they were training, their planes were specially modified for the mission. The modifications included adding three fuel tanks, nearly doubling the B-25's capacity. The planes sacrificed some equipment and defensive armament in the interests of lightening the aircraft, thereby allowing them to fly farther.

On April 1, 1942, sixteen of the 17th Bomb Group's modified B-25s and their crews (71 Officers, 130 Enlisted) were loaded aboard the USS Hornet at Naval Air Station Alameda. The Hornet's crew had stowed her own planes in the hangar. Since the deck would be used by the Army bombers, she'd be unable to launch her own aircraft for defense - a second carrier would be needed to protect the task force, but as yet, the Hornet's crew nor her Army passengers knew what their mission was.

At 1000 hours Pacific time on April 2, 1942 (exactly 70 years ago from this post's timestamp). Hornet sailed. A few hours later, with no possibility of the word being leaked, Hornet's commanding officer, Captain Marc Mitscher, informed the ship's company of two things.

  1. They were heading for a mid-ocean rendezvous with Vice Admiral William Halsey's task force built around the USS Enterprise (CV-6)
  2. Their target was Japan

17th Bomb Group B-25s on deck of USS Hornet, mid-Pacific Ocean
A vast ocean, the danger of enemy discovery and attack, and a seemingly impossible task to strike back at the Japanese homeland so soon into the war lay before them...


This post draws upon the Wikipedia articles for the Doolittle Raid and the official website of the Doolittle Raiders. Future posts at the mission's milestones will be forthcoming, culminating with the 70th Anniversary of America's strike at Japan on April 18th.

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