Balls to the wall

Recently, I came across an article in the San Jose Mercury News describing the final toast of the four surviving members of the “Doolittle Raiders”. The “Doolittle Raiders” were a band of 80 specially trained Army airmen who participated in one of the most courageous retaliatory bombing missions ever undertaken in response to the devastating attacks on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

On April 1, 1942, 16 specially modified B-25 bomber aircraft were loaded onto the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet docked at the Alameda Naval Air Station located in Northern California. The 16 aircraft were accompanied by 80 Army airmen, 71 Army officers and 130 enlisted men. The mission was orchestrated and led by the legendary military aviator Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle of the U. S. Army Air Forces.

The weaponry each B-25 would carry included four customized 500-pound (225 kg) bombs. Three of the bombs contained high-explosive munitions and the forth was an incendiary package designed to separate and scatter explosive tubes after its release from the bomb bay.

The primary objective of the Doolittle bombing mission was to fly 16 B-25 bombers 480 nautical miles at extremely low altitudes (to avoid radar detection) to Japan to destroy 10 military and industrial targets located in the cities of Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe, and Osaka. The attacks were designed to be rapid and devastating and were intended to cripple Japan’s growing industrial capabilities.

On the morning of April 18, after being unexpectedly sighted by a Japanese patrol boat, the B-25s were ordered to launch immediately. Because each B-25 aircraft was so laden with fuel and ordinance and had only 467 feet (142 m) of takeoff distance; each pilot was required to use a takeoff technique known as “balls to the wall”. After each aircraft was positioned forward for takeoff, pilots shoved the throttle lever balls against the instrument panel and held them at the full power position while the twin engines ramped to maximum power. Once the engines achieved full power, the brakes were released to rapidly accelerate the plane forward.

Miraculously, all 16 B-25 aircraft launched successfully off the deck of the U.S.S. Hornet without ditching into the ocean. After all bombers were airborne, they regrouped for the long flight to Japan. During the first half of the flight over the Pacific, the B-25s flew in small formations then flew in single file. Each aircraft flew slightly above wave top level to avoid radar detection.

When the bombers reached Japan, each B-25 crew jettisoned their bomb loads over the six targets within seconds. Of the 16 participating bombers, only one missed its target. None of the 16 aircraft were shot down by anti-aircraft fire or Japanese fighter plane attacks.

After the bombing raids were accomplished, 15 of the 16 B-25s flew southwest over the South China Sea and into Eastern China while one bomber, extremely low on fuel, headed towards the Soviet Union. With a refueling plan foiled and other unforeseen challenges present, the bomber crews had no choice but to either crash land or bail out once their fuel tanks ran dry.

Fortunately, most of the crews were kept safe by allied Chinese civilians and soldiers. Of the original 80 participating “Doolittle Raiders”, 69 survived the mission by avoiding capture from Japanese forces.

In the end, the Doolittle Mission restored and boosted morale to the United States following the devastating attacks on Perl Harbor just 5 months before. The mission proved that the United States was still capable of responding with remarkable force even after taking an enormous hit to its military. Moreover, it exposed the vulnerability of the Japanese military who believed they were invincible after an overwhelming and victorious attack on the United States. In short, the Doolittle Raid became a turning point in a war that was just beginning to escalate.

On Veterans Day this year, three of the four surviving members of the “Doolittle Raiders” toasted their fallen comrades by sipping 1896 cognac. The 1896 cognac was selected because it was produced the same year their heroic mission leader Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle was born.

The “Doolittle Raiders” were and are among some of the most courageous members of the “greatest generation”. Before these last four men pass from this earth, their complete stories should be captured and find their rightful place in history along with others who have faithfully served their country above and beyond the call of duty.

Doolittle B-25

B-25 bomber awaiting takeoff from the U.S.S. Hornet on April 18, 1942.

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