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Lt. Col. James Doolittle, left, accepts a medal from the skipper of the USS Hornet, Capt. Marc A. Mitscher. The medal, once given to a U.S. Navy officer by the Japanese, was wired to a 500-pound bomb dropped during the April 18, 1942, bombing of the Japanese mainland.
Lt. Col. James Doolittle, left, accepts a medal from the skipper of the USS Hornet, Capt. Marc A. Mitscher. The medal, once given to a U.S. Navy officer by the Japanese, was wired to a 500-pound bomb dropped during the April 18, 1942, bombing of the Japanese mainland. (U.S. Air Force)
Lt. Col. James Doolittle, left, accepts a medal from the skipper of the USS Hornet, Capt. Marc A. Mitscher. The medal, once given to a U.S. Navy officer by the Japanese, was wired to a 500-pound bomb dropped during the April 18, 1942, bombing of the Japanese mainland.
Lt. Col. James Doolittle, left, accepts a medal from the skipper of the USS Hornet, Capt. Marc A. Mitscher. The medal, once given to a U.S. Navy officer by the Japanese, was wired to a 500-pound bomb dropped during the April 18, 1942, bombing of the Japanese mainland. (U.S. Air Force)
Majority Leader of the Senate Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., presents the Congressional Gold Medal to retired Air Force Lt. Gen. John Hudson, who accepted it on behalf of the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders, who were honored Wednesday, April 15, 2015, during a ceremony on Capitol Hill for their daring bombing raid on mainland Japan on April 18, 1942. Hudson -- director of the National Museum of the Air Force, where the medal will go on display -- is flanked by U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, and Democratic Leader of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Majority Leader of the Senate Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., presents the Congressional Gold Medal to retired Air Force Lt. Gen. John Hudson, who accepted it on behalf of the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders, who were honored Wednesday, April 15, 2015, during a ceremony on Capitol Hill for their daring bombing raid on mainland Japan on April 18, 1942. Hudson -- director of the National Museum of the Air Force, where the medal will go on display -- is flanked by U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, and Democratic Leader of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — They delivered the bold U.S. counterpunch after Japan’s strike on Pearl Harbor and likely shifted the course of World War II toward victory.

Amid the towering columns of the Capitol’s Emancipation Hall, the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders were honored Wednesday in a ceremony bestowing the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal. The director of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Ohio accepted the medal on behalf of the two surviving members, both in their 90s.

The Raiders were comprised of 80 pilots and crew members led by then U.S. Air Forces Lt. Col. James Doolittle, who volunteered in 1942 for a risky mission to strike the Japanese homeland and inflict a psychological blow to its imperial ambitions just as war was breaking out across the region.

“They sought no recognition but, oh, how they earned it,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said. “Thank you for what you did for this country. Because of you we live in a free and grateful nation.”

The ceremony comes nearly 73 years to the day after the raid and included a recorded thank you message from Lt. Col. Dick Cole, 99, who was Doolittle’s co-pilot.

Cole said he requested the medal be permanently displayed in the Ohio museum, which plans to present the medal Saturday to Cole and the other surviving Raiders member, Staff Sgt. David Thatcher, 93, who was an engineer and gunner.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 killed about 2,300 Americans and was part of an offensive that took territory throughout the Pacific. It led the U.S. military to conceive of the special aviation project.

“One purpose was to give the folks at home the first good news that we’d had in World War II. It caused the Japanese to question their warlords,” the late Doolittle said in a 1980 interview. “And from a tactical point of view, it caused the retention of aircraft in Japan for the defense of the home islands when we had no intention of hitting them again, seriously in the near future.”

Bombing inside Japan required a bold new tactic — flying medium-range bombers from an aircraft carrier position in the Pacific. At that time, no bomber had ever taken off in less than the 500 feet available on carrier decks.

The military settled on the B-25 Mitchell bomber as the ideal aircraft because it was relatively light and could haul 2,000-pound bombs up to 2,000 miles, which was the range and firepower needed for the targets spread across four Japanese cities.

Doolittle’s pilot proved they could pull it off — one made a takeoff in just 287 feet, according to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

The 16 B-25s took off from the USS Hornet aircraft carrier and bombed the cities of Tokyo, Yokosuka, Yokohama, Nagoya and Kobe on April 18, 1942.

The bombing did little physical damage but it accomplished its intent. The Japanese public began to doubt assurances that they were safe from air attacks, and the Imperial forces made a fateful decision to change strategy in June and send its carriers and aircraft forward to fight.

Japan would lose two of its carriers and many aircraft in the summer fighting that followed, setting the stage for a series of sea battle defeats to the United States.

But many of the Raiders did not escape danger.

After the bombing, the B-25s flew to China and Russia where they crash-landed and crew members were captured. Eight of the crew were captured by the Japanese and endured mock trials that resulted in death sentences. Captured Raiders were beaten and starved during 40 months as prisoners of war.

The crew that flew from its targets to Vladivostok, Russia, seeking a safe harbor were captured and imprisoned by Russian forces that had vowed neutrality. Eventually they escaped through Iran, according to the World War II museum.

“If they were here today, the Raiders would tell you they just wanted to help out with our nation’s war effort,” said Lt. Gen. Jack Hudson, director of the Air Force museum.

tritten.travis@stripes.com Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

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