On April 17, 1942, the aircraft carrier USS Hornet steamed west across the Pacific, several hundred miles from Japan. Lashed to its deck were sixteen B-25 bombers—planes never before launched from a carrier on a combat mission. Their secret target: Tokyo.
In the four months after Pearl Harbor, Japan’s forces had surged across the Pacific. The Japanese were confident their nation was safe from attack. Lt. Col. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle and 79 other airmen were determined to prove them wrong with a surprise air attack from the sea. They knew they would not have enough fuel to return to the Hornet, so they planned to land in China after dropping their bombs.
Early on April 18, a Japanese patrol boat spotted the task force, and Doolittle realized he must launch earlier than planned. His airmen had spent months training but had never taken off at sea. In the midst of a howling storm, Doolittle got his plane off the pitching deck and into the air, with the other B-25s following.
The bombers roared toward Japan, just twenty feet above the waves to avoid detection. The attack was a complete surprise—many Japanese waved as the bombers flew overhead, not dreaming they could be Allied aircraft. The raiders quickly dropped their bombs on Tokyo and other targets and sped away.
Doolittle and his crews continued toward China, where they crash-landed or parachuted from their planes as they ran out of fuel. One bomber landed in Russia. Most of the men eventually made it home with the help of Chinese who hid them from the Japanese. The Japanese did capture several airmen, executing three and starving one to death.
The audacious raid did little physical damage, but it stunned the Japanese. News of Jimmy Doolittle’s “thirty seconds over Tokyo” electrified Americans and helped turn the tide of the war in the Pacific.