Startup: Everyone Flap Your Arms!

The post engineerd did on Friday really triggered a tidbit in my memory about one of the most amazing feats from the Second World War. As I discovered while I was refreshing my memory on the details, it was actually featured quite prominently in the movie Pearl Harbor, which I have not seen because I generally hate movies. I am of course referring to the legendary Doolittle Raid, which was the first American assault on Japanese soil during World War II. This raid was launched from the American aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) on April 18, 1942.

A B-25 Mitchell, like the ones used in the Doolittle Raid

During the Doolittle raid, sixteen B-25 Mitchell bombers were launched from the relatively small deck of an aircraft carrier on a one-way bombing raid over Japan. Due to the logistics of launching relatively large bombers from a WWII-era flight deck, there was absolutely no possibility of a return to the ship, as there would be simply no place for them to land. Hell, there wasn’t really enough room for them to take off. As such, the hope was that they would be able to make it over Japan to airbases in China where they and their planes could be refueled and returned to the American forces. In actuality, all craft were forced to ditch as they ran out of fuel.

Now, mostly I hate movies because they over-dramatize things. They build up the importance, they show things as being much more dramatic and exciting than they actually are, they overplay the importance of certain events, and they tend to exaggerate the truth. In this situation, the details shown in Pearl Harbor are actually poorly represented for the exact opposite reason.

For obvious reasons, the film crew of Pearl Harbor had a hard time getting their hands on an authentic WWII-era aircraft carrier. As such, the USS Constellation (CV-64) stood in for the USS Hornet that served as the actual launching point. While this is an impressive feat, and the movie’s production crew should be heavily commended for actually launching vintage B-25 Mitchell off an aircraft carrier, there is simply no way around the fact that the Constellation is a Kitty Hawk-class supercarrier, and the Connie’s flight deck is much, much larger than that of the Hornet. And, impressive as it appears in the movie, the actual mission was much more so. The takeoff routine for the Mitchells had to be drastically altered, and the aircrew was forced to develop an entirely new technique for launching such a large craft. The techniques they developed would actually shape the on-deck strategies for aircraft launches for the rest of the war, and the lessons learned led to the steam-powered catapults that became standard-issue on all later aircraft carriers.


The Doolittle Raid ended up causing very little material damage — indeed, it was mocked by Japanese propaganda as the “Do-Nothing Raid” — but its psychological and strategic impact was far beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The Japanese government had been bragging that their island was an invincible fortress, and that no American force would be able to touch them. When a fleet of twin-engined bombers staged an attack on home soil, it shook the confidence of the Japanese people right to the core. Japanese strategists could not understand where the attack could have come from, since conventional wisdom said that launching such large aircraft from a carrier was impossible. As such, it caused the Japanese to withdraw their forces much closer to home, and dramatically expanded the possibilities for attack from the American forces.

The Doolittle raid so emphatically confused the Japanese military leadership, that it caused Marshall Isokuru Yamamoto to alter his strategy to the war, and to decide on the attack on Midway, which became the most decisive naval battle in history, and the turning point in the war in the Pacific in favour of the Americans.

Today, as engineerd showed on Friday, the possibilities for airborne missions from an aircraft carrier are almost limitless; but were it not for the ingenuity showed by daring pioneers such as Jimmy Doolittle, the face of history could have been very different.

  • Number_Six

    So many aspects of this raid are really hard to believe. Thirteen out of sixteen crews eventually made it back to the US – one crew crash-landed in Russia and were interned; they escaped, and somehow fled across Asia to Iran. The Japanese killed approximately 250,000 Chinese civilians during the hunt for the American crews; most of whom had crash-landed in eastern China.

    • Jim-Bob

      I suspect that they were assisted in their escape by the Soviets as happened later in the war with the Hap Arnold Special (B-29). That plane of course became one of four B-29’s that were analyzed when Andre Tupolev copied and modified the B-29 to build the TU-4. It was not an exact copy because the Soviets had abandoned their old measurements for the Metric system after the war. So, the metal gauges had to be varied to make a plane that did not give up strength or gain excessive weight. They also used Soviet engines that were not as powerful as the American ones were. The plane was close enough though and like the DC-3 before it (Lusinov Li-2) the design served for many years behind the iron curtain.

      • Skipper Steely

        No Soviet help. In fact, one crew landed after the Doolittle Raid over Japan, and the Russians kept them hostage/prisoner for months. My new book will be on Dean Hallmark. Don Goldstein has one prepared for DeShazier.

  • The other major psychological impact of the Doolittle Raid was a boost in morale for both the Pacific Fleet and US citizens at home. Until then, we had been taking a beating; not the least of which on Pearl Harbor. Even though the Doolittle Raid did little material damage, it brought hope to the troops and those supporting them.

    • Deartháir

      Absolutely. Which is exactly what Roosevelt predicted, against the advice of many of his closest advisors. Honestly, the more I read about that guy, the more impressed I am.

      • Number_Six

        His biggest wartime flaw was his underestimation of Joseph Stalin's lying, sociopathic ways.

        • Deartháir

          In fairness, ANYTHING would have been an underestimation. The rational part of your brain stops you eventually and says, “Come now… Nobody could be THAT crazy!”

  • P161911

    guess this is a good place to post strange aircraft operating from a carrier. How about a U-2?
    [youtube 6gYouxgI8R0 youtube]

    • Number_Six

      Getting this C-17 Globemaster onto a carrier must have been tough:
      <img src="; />

      • Froggmann_

        Well that looks like a Pucker factor of just under 2 billion.

      • Deartháir

        I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest, "a crane".

      • Number_Six


  • tenbeers

    More recommended reading:

    There are five surviving Raiders.

    • Deartháir

      Who meet up regularly, and basically wait for each other to die, amusingly. Apparently they have a bottle of cognac from the year of Doolittle's birth, and the last two remaining Raiders are to drink a toast with it.

  • Jim-Bob

    I read up on Doolittle’s bio a few months back and was amazed at just how instrumental he was in the early days of flight. Namely, he was the first person to propose and successfully complete a flight purely on IFR (Instrument Flight Rules). Before his pioneering work, all flights were done by visual reckoning (VFR or Visual Flight Rules) only. He proved it was possible to do a pure IFR flight in an aircraft with no windows. There were several other details that impressed me but that is the one that stuck out the most. Truly an amazing man.

  • texlenin

    Another wasted opportunity. We built the Alcan highway for..what?
    We should have had major AAF bomber bases there by the end of
    43, ramping up as more and more Liberators came online. Hit from
    both North & South. Or just one "Habbakuk".
    I'm just think strategically- I have a dear friend who was born and raised
    in Chiba City, and I am being kept from rushing there and helping out by
    But what the hell were our military planners thinking back then?

    • Skipper Steely

      Somehow FDR kept as many as possible working. The highway was one of those projects already planned.

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  • Thomas

    Dearthair says the Doolittle raid "caused the Japanese to withdraw their forces much closer to home". I must what forces he thinks were withdrawn from where and moved to what location closer to home?
    He next says that it also led Yamamoto to attack Midway. But his intent was not simply to attack Midway (as he had attacked Perarl Harbor, for example), but to invade and occupy it with troops. That is, his plan was not to move his forces closer to home, but to deploy them further than they had thitherto been deployed. And at the same time Japanese troops were successively deployed even further from home in the assaults upon Attu and Kiska.