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Doolittle raid: History began on McChord Field

Crews trained with 17th Bomb Group before setting off on historic operation

An Army Air Force B-25B bomber takes off from USS Hornet (CV-8) at the start of the raid, April 18, 1942. Note men watching from the signal lamp platform at right. Photo credit: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command

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On the day after the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, flight crews from McChord Field's 17th Bombardment Group began patrols along the Washington and Oregon state coastlines, searching for Japanese submarines to prevent another attack on the United States. But soon the 17th Bomb Group would play an integral role in World War II history and become a noteworthy example of military warfare innovation.

The extensive loss of life at Pearl Harbor prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to approve swift retaliation against the Japanese, and military leaders conceived an idea for a raid that would require experienced flight crews and a solid aircraft.

They found both in the 17th Bomb Group, known as the "Daddy Of Them All." The group had trained on the new North American B-25 Mitchell bomber since late 1940 and were considered the foremost experts on the aircraft. When it came time to select flight crews for the raid, the mission's commander, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, knew just who to ask.

Duane Denfield, Joint Base Lewis-McChord's architectural historian, said Doolittle's plan was to launch bombers from an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean to attack Japan. The air attack would surprise the Japanese, who believed they were immune to an air attack because of their distance from the U.S. Launching bombers from an aircraft carrier had never been done before.

"Military leaders didn't think it was possible," Denfield said.

Flight crews from the 17th Bomb Group sharpened their launch skills by training at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., on an empty field painted like the deck of an aircraft carrier. When it came time to test run the crews' skills to launch a B-25 off the deck of a real aircraft carrier, group members succeeded on their first two tries. That was enough for Doolittle, who put the mission into motion.

The raid

On April 18, 1942, 16 B-25 bombers and their crews sailed toward Japan on the U.S.S. Hornet. Each crew of five would take off from the aircraft carrier, drop their bombs over military targets and continue west to land on secure airfields in China. Each plane carried just enough fuel for the mission.

What Doolittle didn't anticipate was the presence of Japanese patrol boats, guarding Japanese shores and communicating anything they saw. He decided to begin the raid much earlier than planned, adding almost 200 miles to each bomber's flight plan.

"The planes had enough fuel to fly within a certain range, but they were detected early," Denfield said. "So when they took off, those pilots knew there was a strong possibility that they wouldn't make it through the raid alive."

The early start to the raid meant each flight crew had to ditch its plane and parachute to safety or attempt a crash landing. Only one plane landed safely in Soviet territory, where the crew was taken prisoner and interned for more than a year. Nine of the 80 crew members died in the raid.

According to Denfield, even though the raid didn't result in much physical damage to the Japanese, Americans viewed the mission as a victory, immeasurably boosting U.S. morale after the tragedy of Pearl Harbor.

"It was a huge success psychologically for the United States," he said.

McChord's role

Accounts of the Doolittle raid don't often credit the role of the 17th Bomb Group, but according to Denfield, the McChord unit trained the crew members and were largely responsible for the effectiveness of the raid. Its success provided the Air Force with the sense they could do extraordinary things.

Denfield said the Doolittle raid was a great example of the U.S. military innovation during the war, the thing, he said, that set U.S. forces apart from other military forces during World War II.

"The raid illustrates the caliber of the 17th Bomb Group," Denfield said. "They had excellent pilots and air crews."

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