Seventy-seven years ago this month, sixteen Mitchell B-25 (Model B) medium bombers were launched from the USS Hornet to attack the Japanese mainland: specifically, the capital city of Tokyo and other locations on the island of Honshu. The daring raid, coming just barely four months after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor was not only revenge for that event, but also intended to boost American morale, which had seen one blow after another in the early months of America’s entry into the conflict.
Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle led eighty men, five to a plane, on the one-way mission. Executed on a very tight timeline at the behest of President Roosevelt, who was infuriated by the duplicity of the Japanese and their lightning string of successes in the Pacific. The raid itself was the brainchild of Navy Captain Francis “Frog” Low, a senior member of the staff of Navy Commander in Chief Admiral Ernest King. It quickly got the blessing of the other chiefs of staff, Army General George Marshall and the Army Air Corps General Henry “Hap” Arnold.
When approached with the idea, Colonel Doolittle embraced it enthusiastically. If there was anyone who could carry off the mission, it was Jimmy Doolittle who had proven himself as during and after the First World War in combat and as an air racer and test pilot. The mission was officially designated “The 1st Special Aviation Project”. Twenty-four crews were quickly selected from various squadrons around the country and sent to Eglin Auxiliary Field in Florida. They were told they were to participate in a dangerous and secret mission and it was strictly on a volunteer basis. None backed away from the challenge.
They immediately began training to take off from a painted section of the field measured to the length of an aircraft carrier flight deck (although they were not told why they were taking off in such a short distance). They also practiced low level and night flying (without the benefit of radar), and over-water navigation: all of this within a matter of weeks. A number of modifications were made to the planes to maximize their fuel efficiency. In late March, sixteen aircraft were selected for the mission and flown to California at tree-top level) for final modifications.
The planes had been stripped of as much weight as possible to allow for the extra fuel needed. The bottom turret was removed. Tail guns and were removed and replaced by a pair of black-painted broom handles to confuse potential enemy attacks from the rear. The plane’s top turret and nose guns were left in place for defensive purposes. The top-secret Norden bombsight was taken out and a simple two-piece aluminum device nicknamed the “Mark Twain” was put in its place. Extra fuel was carried in a rubber bladder in the fuselage.
Originally, only 15 planes were designated for the mission. A 16th was added to demonstrate that a heavily loaded medium bomber could, indeed, take off from the limited length of an aircraft carrier flight deck. Instead, the 16th plane as added to the mission force at the last minute.
In San Francisco, a Navy yard crane lifted the bombers aboard the USS Hornet on 1 April and, accompanied by the cruiser Nashville, the carrier and the sixteen aircraft set sail on their mission into history. They were joined at sea by the carrier Enterprise, the cruisers Salt Lake City and Northampton, four destroyers and a tanker. The Navy units would be under tactical command of Admiral William Halsey aboard Enterprise. Once underway, the men and those aboard the task force ships learned for the first time the nature of their mission.
This seems like a good point to introduce the Rhode Island connection: the sole Doolittle raider from the Hope State. He was twenty-six-year-old Omar Adelard Duquette (sometimes spelled ‘Omer’ in records) of the village of Phoenix in West Warwick. Born 26 January 1916, Omar had joined the Army in 1938 after two years of high school. Initially trained at Fort Slocum in New York, he was assigned to the Army Air Corps as a mechanic and briefly served in the Canal Zone before being transferred to the 37th Bomb Squadron at Pendleton, Oregon, among the units from which the Raider crews were drawn.
Staff Sgt. Duquette was a member of the crew of Plane #12 (the planes were numbered in order of takeoff). Their aircraft, “Fickle Finger of Fate”, under command of Lt. William M. Bower, was assigned to bomb Yokohama. Duquette, a flight engineer, was cross-trained as a gunner for the mission. Once aboard the carrier, the crews and the accompanying Army Air Corps service personnel armed the planes with four 500-pound bombs, especially designed for the mission. Three were high-explosive and one carried a bundle of incendiaries (Japan’s cities were notoriously fire-prone as would be proven later in the war).
In one of the mission photos taken aboard Hornet, Lt. Col. Doolittle is seen attaching Japanese “friendship” medals that had been awarded to U.S. servicemen before the war. They would be returned with a vengeance. Things were going to plan when suddenly at 7:38am on 18 April, about 650 miles from the Japanese mainland the task force was sighted by a radio-equipped enemy picket boat. Although the craft was quickly sunk (and several crewmen captured), it was believed a radio warning had been transmitted. Col. Doolittle and Hornet skipper Captain Marc Mitscher made the decision to launch immediately although it would add some 200 miles to the flight. The original mission plan called for the planes to fly on to pre-selected fields in China, as returning to land on the carrier deck was not an option. Now, with the additional miles, the mission would be a close call.
Doolittle took off first, with just over 460 feet of open deck (considerably less than the normal takeoff run for a B-25). He was followed one-by-one by the remaining fifteen planes. Omar Duquette and his fellow crewmen aboard Plane 12 were among the last to leave the carrier (and at least had a little longer takeoff run). Although they had practiced the maneuver many times on shore, this was the first (and only) carrier takeoff they would make.
Around noon, the planes began to arrive over Japan. They split off and flying about 1,500 feet above ground attacked military targets in Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka (site of a main Japanese naval base), Nagoya, Kobe, and Osaka. Ironically, shortly before the planes arrived, there had been a false air raid alarm in Tokyo. They encountered scattered anti-aircraft fire and a few Japanese fighter planes (three enemy planes were claimed by the American flyers). The B-25s also used their nose guns to strafe ground targets. Fifty people were killed in the raid, which did relatively minor damage but gave a huge boost to American morale and leveled an intense embarrassment on the Japanese military. It also gave impetus to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto to undertake the Midway attack several months later.
Following the brief raid, fifteen planes, among them the “Fickle Finger of Fate” headed for the China coast. One plane, low on fuel, diverted to a field in the Soviet Union (40 miles north of Vladivostok) where its crew was interned (as Russia had not entered the war against Japan). Eventually, that crew managed a return to the U.S. by a circuitous route with the tacit approval of the Russians who did not want to violate their neutrality with Japan at the time.
The original plan had called for the Navy to alert the Chinese of the approaching B-25’s but the message was never sent for fear of further alerting the enemy. The task force immediately turned back for home after the mission launch. The raiders flew on aided by a tail wind but encountering bad weather on the Chinese coast. Thirteen hours after leaving the Hornet, the planes arrived over China and either crash-landed or their crews bailed out one by one. Two planes went missing.
The Japanese captured eight crewmen in China and later executed three of them. Eventually, fourteen five-man crews made it to safety and returned to the U.S. or to American forces. One airman was killed in action when he bailed out of his plane. The Japanese killed some 250,000 Chinese in retaliation for aiding the aircrews.
When Lt. Bower brought the “Fickle Finger of Fate” over Yokohama, he and his crew dropped their bombs on the naval dockyards and an oil refinery and then high-tailed it for China. They encountered bad weather and headwinds precluding any possibility of reaching their intended touchdown point and so Bower ordered the crew to bail out. He met up on the ground with Omar Douquette and the rest of his crew and later with other raiders. Together they began the long journey home. All of the crewmen received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the second highest medal for valor. Douquette’s citation reads:
“The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 2, 1926 (ed., note: the year the award was created) takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Flying Cross to Sergeant Omer Adelard Douquette (ASN: 6143447), United States Army Air Forces, for extraordinary achievement as Engineer/Gunner of a B-25 Bomber of the 1st Special Aviation Project (Doolittle Raider Force), while participating in a highly destructive raid on the Japanese mainland on 18 April 1942. Sergeant Douquette with 79 other officers and enlisted men volunteered for this mission knowing full well that the chances of survival were extremely remote, and executed his part in it with great skill and daring. This achievement reflects high credit on himself and the military service.”
Douquette, who was unmarried, chose not to return to the U.S. after the mission and he transferred into the 341st Bombardment Group, Medium based at Karachi, India. He was returning from a secret mission over (Lashio) Burma when his plane crashed into a mountain. He was killed on 3 June 1942 just six weeks after the Tokyo raid. His remains were never recovered. Douquette is memorialized on the Tablets of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery in Taquig City, Philippines.
Omar Douquette is also remembered in his hometown of West Warwick, RI. If you go to Phoenix Square, in a little triangular park, a bronze plaque stands in his honor and also contains the names of other local men who died in the war. General Doolittle attended the dedication of the monument. The local AMVETS post was also named for Douquette. In 2007, he was inducted into the Rhode Island Aviation Hall of Fame.
The Tokyo Raid was the longest mission (some 2,250 nautical miles) ever flown by the B-25 medium bomber. Doolittle returned to the United States expecting to be court-marshaled because he had lost all the aircraft. Instead, he received the Medal of Honor and a promotion to brigadier general. Doolittle, of course, went on to many more accomplishments during and after the war. He passed away in 1993 at age 96. Over the years, the Tokyo Raiders gathered for periodic reunions and to drink a ceremonial toast to their comrades. One by one, their numbers dwindled. The last surviving Raider, Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” Cole, who served as Doolittle’s co-pilot on the mission, died on 8 April 2019 at the age of 103.
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