Returning to the army full-time in 1940, Doolittle continued his test pilot work until January of 1942, when he was summoned by General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold to lead a raid on the Japanese mainland. At the time Japan’s defensive perimeter in the Pacific was wide enough to make it invulnerable to conventional carrier-based attacks.
Sixteen Army B-25 bombers were rigged with doubled fuel capacity and loaded on the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. The original plan called for bombing five major cities, but last-minute detection of the Hornet forced the planes to launch a day early.
With Doolittle in the lead, the planes survived storms and anti-aircraft fire to drop four bombs each on Tokyo, striking industrial facilities and a light cruiser. Several bombs hit civilian areas, killing 50 and injuring 400.
The Doolittle Raiders, as the planes’ pilots became known, flew on toward China. They had planned to land in areas controlled by Chinese Nationalists, but all ran out of fuel and crashed. Most of the crews parachuted to the ground, where with local help they were able to reach the Nationalist lines. One crew landed in Vladivostok and was interned by the Soviets. Three died in the crashes, and eight were captured by the Japanese.