Four Loose Threads


FOR the dark months that followed Pearl Harbor, there were few military initiatives that America could take. In March 1942, at a time when the fall of the Philippines was imminent, President Roosevelt authorized a spectacular air raid upon Tokyo, primarily intended to lift morale in the United States. The raid, child of the fertile brain of Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander-in-Chief of the United States Fleet, and his senior operations officer, was not planned as more than a token gesture of defiance. Strictly speaking, it would serve no useful military purpose. Lieutenant-Colonel James H. Doolittle, a former stunt pilot, a qualified aeronautical engineer with a doctorate from MIT, and an outstanding aviator with a string of record-breaking aerial accomplishments to his credit, was selected to head a handpicked team of Army airmen whom he trained in less than a month to fly their specially adapted land-based aircraft off a tiny patch of runway intended to simulate a naval flight deck.

In April sixteen twin-engined B25s of the United States Army Air Force were loaded aboard the USS Hornet and, collecting an escort which included four cruisers, eight destroyers and an air umbrella provided by the USS Enterprise, they advanced into the Western Pacific. In the absence of radar, Yamamoto Isoruku had taken the precaution of stationing a line of picket-boats in a great arc, more than seven hundred miles out to sea east of the Japanese mainland, to provide early warning of any carrier-borne attack. The approaching task force spotted four of these boats, two of which flashed the news to Tokyo. The Japanese did not expect the Americans to launch long-range land-based aircraft from the decks of ships or at such a distance as to make their recovery aboard impossible. Having lost hope of nearing Japan undetected, however, Doolittle and Admiral ‘Bull’ Halsey, commander of the naval task force, decided that it would be too dangerous for the ships to venture closer or to linger within easy range of Japanese land-based aircraft. They agreed that the B25s should be launched without delay, correctly anticipating that Japanese misjudgement of the raiders’ time of arrival would outweigh the risk that the aircraft were likely to run out of fuel before they could reach the safety of air bases in unoccupied China. It was a bold stroke and achieved effective surprise.

A solitary Japanese patrol aircraft six hundred miles out to sea had reported seeing one of the bombers heading westwards. Its warning was not heeded: the American carrier raid was expected to materialize on the morrow. Following the first signals from Yamamoto’s picket ships, Japanese Naval Air Headquarters had ordered ninety fighters and 116 bombers to prepare for the contest at first light. Six heavy cruisers and ten destroyers set out at full steam to intercept the American warships. It was all in vain.

One of the American aircraft released a ton of incendiaries over Nagoya, while another hit Kobe and a third, originally scheduled for Osaka, bombed the Yokosuka Naval Yard and Yokohama instead. Twelve others headed straight for the heart of Tokyo, arriving from all points of the compass just as a full-scale mock air raid by Japanese aircraft was ending, throwing the Japanese air controllers into confusion. Tōjō himself, coming in to land at Tokyo in an Army transport aircraft following an inspection of troops outside the capital, was passed by one of the incoming B25s. The Americans encountered increasingly heavy anti-aircraft fire over Tokyo but released their bomb loads of incendiaries and high explosives unscathed. The sixteenth aircraft of the squadron, beset with fuel supply problems on its route to Japan, veered away from the Japanese mainland and headed alone for Vladivostok, where the Russians seized it and interned its crew. All of the other aircraft eluded pursuit and flew on to reach China, assisted by unexpectedly favourable tail winds. Their target landing fields were 1,500 miles beyond Tokyo. It had been hoped that any surviving aircraft would join Major-General Claire Chennault’s hard-pressed air forces. None of them did so. Several flew directly over their intended landing field at Chuchow, but the Chinese, who had not been told that the Americans were heading there, mistook the planes for Japanese and switched off their field lights upon detecting the approaching aircraft. Four of the fifteen crash-landed when they ran out of fuel before reaching safety. The other eleven crews finally took to their parachutes, abandoning their aircraft in mid-air.

The raid shocked and mortified the Japanese nation and its leadership. There is no reason to doubt the genuine sense of moral outrage expressed by the Japanese, who had managed to suppress any twinges of conscience that some of them felt for the plight of the Chinese, Filipino and other civilian populations bombed so recklessly by Japanese aircraft earlier in this fifteen-year war. There is a great difference between those who give and those who receive the punishment of aerial bombardment.

The number of persons actually killed by Jimmy Doolittle’s Raid was small, something like fifty people. Ninety buildings including a number of private homes were bombed and, in what appears to have been a tragic mistake, at least one of the aircraft attacked a school full of children, cutting down a number of teachers and their pupils by machine-gun fire. Tōjō and his Cabinet reacted strongly, issuing retroactive regulations condemning indiscriminate air attacks upon non-military objectives, private property or common civilians. These offences, as well as other serious infractions of the international laws of war, would now be treated as criminal acts punishable under Japanese military law. Captured enemy airmen convicted under these new regulations would be liable to a term of imprisonment of not less than ten years and could forfeit their lives.

The four-man crews from two of the Doolittle aircraft were taken captive by Japanese occupation forces in China and were paraded through the streets of Shanghai and Nanking respectively. They were subjected to torture in efforts to discover how they had made their way to Tokyo and where they had intended to land. The Japanese were briefly confused by the fact that the B25s and their crews belonged to the US Army Air Force, not the Navy. How had they reached Tokyo? The naval carriers, so it was believed, had sailed off as soon as their distance and bearing had become known. President Roosevelt’s one-line jest that the aircraft had come from ‘Shangrila’ cut no ice. Bit by bit the Japanese soon pieced together more or less the whole story.

In due course exceptional pressure was imposed upon General Hata Shunroku, Supreme Commander of the Japanese Expeditionary Forces in China, to haul the captured fliers before a court-martial at which they were given no opportunity to defend themselves. The result was a foregone conclusion. Hata himself seems to have resisted the duties that he was required to perform, but in the end he had no choice but to carry out his instructions as directed. All eight airmen were condemned to death on 20 August 1942. Afterwards Tōjō commuted five of the sentences to life imprisonment as a practical demonstration of the Emperor’s divine benevolence, but the remaining three prisoners were executed on 10 October 1942. All but one of the others miraculously survived the war and lived to tell their tale.

That the trial and punishment of the Doolittle fliers was a mockery of due process cannot be disputed, and it proved to be merely the beginning of what became the policy of the Japanese to execute Allied bomber crews taken captive by the Japanese. After the war Tōjō told the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal that he had enacted the new Army regulations mainly to deter the Allied Powers from undertaking similar terrorist raids in future. So far as the Japanese were concerned, these unfortunates were nothing less than war criminals, not entitled to protection as prisoners of war.

It is difficult to read the 1907 Rules of The Hague Convention (IV) on Land Warfare and the 1923 Hague Air Warfare Rules (although the latter document, commissioned by Britain, the United States, France, Italy and Japan in 1922, does not have the sanctity of a formal treaty) without feeling that the Japanese had a valid complaint. The declarations of statesmen, judgements of legal tribunals and unanimous resolutions of the League of Nations during the years before the war showed a well-nigh universal condemnation of aerial warfare directed against civilian population centres. Japan herself had declared as early as 1937 that in the conduct of the war in China she would abide by the 1923 Hague Air Warfare Rules. It was the common practice of all belligerents in the Second World War to ignore these provisions. Yet even though the experience of that conflagration confirmed in so many ways that nations tend to resort to the most fiendish means of war that they can devise except when deterred by their vulnerability to reprisals, most people on our planet today would still agree that any resort to indiscriminate attacks upon civilian targets is – or ought to be-in breach of the basic principles of international law. Indeed, the distinguished jurist Sir Hersch Lauterpacht, although cautiously sensing his way in the immediate aftermath of that war, goes much further:

These new problems raised by air warfare cannot be deemed to have affected the validity of the general principle of immunity of non-combatants from direct attack. They are not such as to provide a legal justification for offensive action which, although disguised under the cloak of attack upon a military objective or as a measure of reprisals, is directed in fact exclusively and deliberately against the civilian population. Non-combatants are not, under existing International Law, a legitimate military objective… International Law protects non-combatants from deliberate bombardment from the air directed primarily against them for the purpose of instilling terror or for similar reasons; recourse to such bombardment is unlawful.

Nevertheless, the Japanese case was entirely vitiated by their own past violations of the same rules and by their callous disregard for just about every other international law of war on the books. Moreover, one of the other immediate consequences of the Doolittle Raid was that the Japanese launched a systematic counter-offensive of terror and punitive raids in the provinces of Chekiang and Kiangsi where all but one of the Doolittle aircraft had come down.


Just as Chiang Kai-shek had feared from the moment he became aware of the American plan to bomb Japan and fly on to China, the Japanese moved swiftly to avenge themselves. Imperial General Headquarters ordered the Japanese Expeditionary Forces in China to suspend operations elsewhere and concentrate their energies upon the seizure of the Chinese airfields in Chekiang while inflicting massive reprisals upon the Chinese. General Hata amassed more than 100,000 troops, more than nine divisions, and began to advance in mid-May. In a campaign reminiscent of Sherman’s march through Georgia in the American Civil War, the Japanese first cleared the Chekiang–Kiangsi Railway and then systematically set about smashing the Chinese airfields, dismantling the railway itself and plundering the entire area. Characteristically, the Kuomintang régime’s official history of the war heaps praise upon Chiang Kai-shek for his ‘complete grasp of the overall situation’:

Knowing the enemy and ourselves, Generalissimo Chiang resolutely ordered the 3rd War Area to avoid a decisive engagement… Thus our forces were able to conserve our strength and continued to harass the enemy, forcing him to fall back to his original position. Generalissimo Chiang’s decision was outstanding, as he caused the enemy to waste strength and time and enabled our forces to tide themselves over the most difficult period.

The truth is that it was a military disaster, and a quarter of a million Chinese were butchered as a direct result of the Doolittle Raid. These appalling outrages by Hata’s forces bear comparison with the notorious Rape of Nanking, and this loss of life must be added to the scales when considering the supposed impact of the Doolittle Raid upon Japanese morale.

The Americans greatly exaggerated the extent to which Japanese public support for the war would be undermined by the Doolittle Raid: it simply had no discernible effect upon morale except to harden the resolve of the nation to resist the ‘hairy barbarian’ hordes from across the seas. It did not even produce fundamental changes in Japanese civil defence and air raid precautions. For another year or so the Japanese authorities and public alike deluded themselves with the thought that the Doolittle Raid provided an accurate indication of the probable scale of damage and disruption that would follow in the wake of any resumption of American air operations over Japan. Local fighter defences were strengthened to guard against further attacks, and it is true that this diversion of Japanese air strength seriously undermined the ability of the Japanese Army Air Force to send badly needed air reinforcements to support frontline troops elsewhere. In truth, however, the number of aircraft and crews recalled from the Chinese mainland to the home defence of Japan was of little consequence when measured against the ever-accelerating disparity between the air resources of the Allied Powers and Japan. The Doolittle Raid did boost the morale of the American people just as the President had wanted so badly after the string of defeats that American arms had sustained in the war thus far. More significantly still, it forced the Japanese Naval General Staff to abandon its opposition to Admiral Yamamoto’s ill-fated plan for another great strategic riposte: the battle for Midway, which meant the ruination of Japan’s best chances to secure the capture of Port Moresby and was the first great turning point of the Pacific War.

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