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And Now For Something Completely Different: The Biggest Gamble

Think all the big gambles are reserved for the sports world?

USA/Japan: A USAAF B25B Mitchell Bomber B-25 taking off from the USS Hornet for the ‘Doolittle Raid’ on Tokyo, 18 April 1942 Photo by: Pictures from History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In the sporting world, so often we talk about big gambles; like the coach that is big on going for it on 4th downs, the team that eschews the certain 3 points for the chance to get 6, 7, or 8, the baseball team that is aggressive on the base paths, looking to swipe the extra base or balance the speed of their runner vs. the arm of the outfielder, the franchise that makes a massive trade in draft picks/future prospects to try to get that one player that will put a team over the top for the championship. “Riverboat gambler” “betting big”, “pushing all the chips into the pot”. Name the cliche, and it has likely been used in a sports situation.

Yet, there are times and gambles where there is far more at stake than mere wins/losses, or even player and coaching jobs. Sometimes, there are true gambles, where the chance for significant, if not catastrophic, losses are in play. 80 years ago, the United States faced such a gamble. On April 18, 1942, the US launched 16 B-25 bombers off the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet at at distance of over 650 miles from the coast of the Japan in an attempt to demonstrate American ability and resolve to strike back at the heart of the Empire of Japan.

Led by US Army Air Corps Lieutenant Colonel and noted aerial daredevil James Doolittle, the B-25s took off and struck multiple targets in Tokyo and other cities on the island of Honshu. Due to distances and fuel restrictions, none of the B-25s made it to their intended landing destinations. Most crashed landed in China. A couple were shot down or crashed in or near Japan, and one B-25 diverted to Vladivostok, where the crew was interred by the Soviets. Eight crew members were captured by the Japanese, with 3 executed, one dying in captivity and the rest surviving until the end of the war in a weakened condition.

Major General James H. Doolittle
Hard to find an airman bolder than this guy.
Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

That the raid is celebrated today as a testament to American ingenuity and daring belies the fact that the US was taking a monumental risk on this operation. Shortly after the devastating Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor that sparked Japanese forces into nearly 6 months of rapid-fire and consequential victories, the US was eager to hit back as hard as possible. Unfortunately, with the loss of almost all American and Allied territory in the Western Pacific and the range limitations of most American aircraft, there wasn’t a whole lot that America could do in this instance. The combined losses of American and British battleships/battle cruisers in the first week of war limited the naval firepower the US could use in such an attack.

The planning staffs within the Army and Navy wracked their brains to come up with some sort of plan. Finally, it was settled on using normally land-based bombers to take off from aircraft carriers, as that was the only way that American forces could balance the demands of striking with some degree of force while offering some protection for the limited forces it could spare for this type of operation.

For those that read any tech manuals on the B-25s, some quick realizations are made. For one, the two engine land-based bomber normally required nearly a mile of runway in order to get up to speed to launch. The US aircraft carriers of that day didn’t have much more than 500 feet of runway before you were either airborne or in the water. Additionally, in order to get a B-25 capable for launching in that short a distance, there would have to be significant weight modifications made, mainly a reduction in fuel, weapons and other key systems. Add on that the planes would have to fly longer distances than usual, and each plane would fly with just enough fuel and equipment to drop a few bombs (no more than 4 bombs/1 ton per plane), and you can see the audacity of this plan.

USA/Japan: A U.S. Army Air Force B-25B Mitchell medium bomber, one of sixteen involved in the Doolittle Raid, takes off from the flight deck of the USS Hornet for an air raid on the Japanese Home Islands, April 18, 1942
Not exactly a stress-free takeoff here.
Photo by: Pictures from History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Along with with the risk that the US might lose all 16 planes and their crews, there were other, perhaps more significant chips in this riskiest of pots. After Pearl Harbor, the US only had 3 aircraft carriers and a limited assortment of cruisers, destroyers, submarines and other ships in the Pacific. To pull off this operation, the US deployed both the newest carrier in the Pacific (Hornet) and the Enterprise to provide escort, along with various cruisers and auxiliary ships. This meant that 1/2 of America’s remaining strategic assets in the Pacific theater were sailing right into the heart of the Japanese defenses.

USS Hornet
While the Hornet would survive the Doolittle Raid and the subsequent battle of Midway, it would not survive the year, as she was sunk at the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands in November, 1942. Her wreck was discovered in January 2019.
Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

To lose those ships could have completed altered America’s war strategy. While the US was hit first by Japan, American strategy going into the war would be focusing on Germany and Italy first, with the Allies fighting a holding action in the Pacific. The US could get away with that plan with the 4 aircraft carriers. If the US was down to 2 carriers along with the loss of other critical cruisers and other ships and their crews, maintaining that focus would be impossible. The US would have to divert more assets from the Atlantic in order to shore up the West Coast, limiting US support to the “Germany First” plan While US economic capabilities would start providing reinforcements after 1942 for the Pacific, the short-term consequences could have been dire. Additionally, would there have been funding or bandwidth for something like the Manhattan Project if America was faced with such a strategic nightmare?

As it was, the US had to launch the bombers nearly 200 miles further out than it wanted. Two Japanese patrols ships reported spotting the task force as it sailed towards Japanese waters. While the US would eventually sink the ships (only after an excessive amount of aircraft and gunnery capabilities were required), the captain of the Hornet, Marc Mitscher, and Doolittle agreed to launch at further distances, so as to avoid risking the fleet. Remarkably, all 16 bombers managed to take off and fly towards Japan, and the US ships reversed course and speed out of Japanese waters with no losses.

The raid did not alter any tactical or operational employment of American forces. No other two engine land-based bombers would take off from US aircraft carriers after the Doolittle Raid. Future carrier task forces would have far more firepower capabilities with the various single-engine carrier planes. The crews used in this raid, at least those that escaped capture or death, did not return to combat for several months. Concurrently, the Japanese did not suffer any significant losses in manpower, material or production as a result of the raid. The Japanese position on April 19th wasn’t all that much different than April 18th.

Yet, the raid did have major strategic significance. The “victory fever” that afflicted most of the Japanese leadership and military forces suffered a rude disruption. While Japan was mulling over plans to extend its reach further East into the Pacific, it also had compelling interests in expanding Southward toward Australia or further West into South Asia, looking towards Burma and India. Yet, the strike on the Japanese home islands settled all debate as far as the high command was concerned. The primary objective was the final defeat of the US Navy in the Pacific and kicking US forces out of the Pacific so that they could never launch another strike like that. Thus, the wheels were in motion that led towards Japan’s fateful defeat at Midway.

Doolittle’s raiders reunite in front of B–25 bomber at Torrance Airport on April 17, 1987.
Until 2013, the surviving members of the Doolittle Raid would reunite, offering special toasts and honoring those comrades who did not make it back to the US and/or had passed away. The last surviving member of the raid, Lt Col Richard Cole, passed away in 2019.
Photo by Aurelio Jose Barrera/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

As we remember the sacrifice and actions of those men for the Doolittle Raid, we need to recall just how huge a gamble it was. The US bet big on an action that was neither assured of success or impact. The potential losses could have set back American defense efforts for years, prolonging the war and costing that many more lives on both sides. That is on top of the actual losses, from the Americans and Japanese killed, to the near 250,000 Chinese killed in the months following the raid. How close history came to calling Doolittle’s Raid “Doolittle’s Folly”? Yet, it succeeded in its own way, and will rank far higher of a gamble than any 4th down/2 point conversion play to win a playoff game.