Lt. George H. W. Bush shot down in dive bomb attack


2 September 1944: USNR Lt. George H. W. Bush shot down in dive bomb attack

Leading one section of a four-plane division in a strike against a radio station, Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Bush pressed home an attack in the face of intense antiaircraft fire. Although his plane was hit and set afire at the beginning of his dive, he continued his plunge toward the target and succeeded in scoring damaging bomb hits before bailing out of the craft.

The USS San Jacinto (CVL-30) was an Independence-class light aircraft carrier.
The USS San Jacinto (CVL-30) was an Independence-class light aircraft carrier.
TBM-1C Avenger with Torpedo Squadron Fifty-One VT-51 from the USS San Jacinto CVL-30 in flight at Peleliu.
TBM-1C Avenger with Torpedo Squadron Fifty-One VT-51 from the USS San Jacinto CVL-30 in flight at Peleliu.

On 2nd September 1944 Lieutenant George W. H. Bush, an Avenger pilot with VT-51 on the USS San Jacinto (CVL-30), was ordered to lead an attack on a Japanese radio station on the island of ChiChi Jima. He continued with the dive bomb attack after his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire and then managed to get his aircraft over the sea before baling out.

His two crew members, Radioman Second Class John Delaney, and substitute gunner Lieutenant Junior Grade William White were killed – one of them parachuted out but the parachute failed to open, the other went down with the plane.

Leo W. Nadeau flew as Bush’s gunner on all but two of his attack missions:

I was replaced by Ltjg. White at the last minute. As intelligence officer, White wanted to go along to observe the island.

[Nadeau had flown with Bush for an attack on Japanese gun emplacements on ChiChi Jima the day before] The antiaircraft (AA) fire on that island was the worst we had seen, I don’t think the AA fire in the Philippines was as bad as that.

No one ever knew which one bailed out with Mr. Bush, I would assume it was Delaney, because as the radioman, he would go out first to leave room for the gunner to climb down out of the turret and put his chute on.

There wasn’t room in the turret for the gunner to wear a parachute. As a gunner, my parachute hung on the bulkhead of the plane near Delaney. We set up an escape procedure where he was supposed to hand me my chute and jump, and then I was to follow him. The procedure took a couple of seconds

I felt bad that Delaney and Mr. White had died, I just had the feeling that had I been there, Delaney and I might have both made it out alive … that is, unless one of us got hit by AA.

Delaney and I had practiced our escape procedure constantly. He might have stayed to help White get out of the turret and delayed too long. it’s one of those things that never leaves your mind. Why didn’t I go that day?

In the water about seven miles off ChiChi Jima, Bush inflated his yellow lifeboat and crawled in – but his troubles were far from over. A Japanese boat was sent out to capture him – but this was beaten off when Lieutenant Doug West, one of his fellow pilots from VT-51, strafed it as it approached.

His position was reported by radio and the submarine USS Finback set off to search for him. He was eventually spotted through the periscope by Captain Robert R.Williams Jr a few hours later. Bush then saw the submarine surfacing:

I saw this thing coming out of the water and I said to myself, ‘Jeez, I hope it’s one of ours.

The original report of the submarine USS Finback on the rescue of Lt Bush and the search for other men in the area, 2nd September 1944.
The original report of the submarine USS Finback on the rescue of Lt Bush and the search for other men in the area, 2nd September 1944.

Ensign Bill Edwards, the sub’s first lieutenant and photographic officer, recorded the rescue on 8mm film:

I thought being rescued by the submarine was the end of my problem. I didn’t realize that I would have to spend the duration of the sub’s 30 remaining days on board.

I’ll never forget the beauty of the Pacific … the flying fish, the stark wonder of the sea, the waves breaking across the bow.

I thought I was scared at times flying into combat, but in a submarine you couldn’t do anything, except sit there. The submariners were saying that it must be scary to be shot at by antiaircraft fire and I was saying to myself, ‘Listen brother, it is not really as bad as what you go through.’ The tension, adrenaline and the fear factor were about the same (getting shot at by antiaircraft fire as opposed to being depth charged).

When we were getting depth charged, the submariners did not seem overly concerned, but the other pilots and I didn’t like it a bit. There was a certain helpless feeling when the depth charges went off that I didn’t experience when flying my plane against AA.

Lieutenant Junior Grade George H.W. Bush, USN, pilot from Torpedo Squadron Fifty One (VT-51) pictured in mid-1944. LTJG Bush would later become the 41st President of the United States.
Lieutenant Junior Grade George H.W. Bush, USN, pilot from Torpedo Squadron Fifty One (VT-51) pictured in mid-1944. LTJG Bush would later become the 41st President of the United States.

The incident was remembered when Bush was appointed Vice President, when he said the experience of combat had given him “a sobering understanding of war and peace”:

The cause was clear and there was a great feeling of camaraderie. There was a gung-ho feeling about the combat missions. But I must confess that there were twinges of fear.

There is no question that having been involved in combat has affected my way of looking at problems. The overall experience was the most maturing in my life.

Even now, I look back and think about the dramatic ways in which the three years in the Navy shaped my life … the friendships, the common purpose, my first experience with seeing friends die …

There’s no question that it broadened my horizons. And there’s no question that today it has a real impact on me as I give advice to the President.

The citation for the Distinguished Flying Cross awarded to Bush for this action:

For heroism and extraordinary achievement in aerial flight as Pilot of a Torpedo Plane in Torpedo Squadron FIFTY ONE, attached to the U.S.S. San Jacinto, in action against enemy Japanese forces in the vicinity of the Bonin Islands, on September 2, 1944.

Leading one section of a four-plane division in a strike against a radio station, Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Bush pressed home an attack in the face of intense antiaircraft fire. Although his plane was hit and set afire at the beginning of his dive, he continued his plunge toward the target and succeeded in scoring damaging bomb hits before bailing out of the craft.

His courage and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Reserve.

This was one of three medals awarded to Bush during the war, when he made 126 carrier landings and completed 1,228 flight hours. More of his experiences can be read at Naval History and Heritage.

Bush was especially lucky to escape, others shot down on this day were to suffer a terrible fate. Their story is told by James Bradley in ‘Flyboys’, published in 2003:

USS Finback (SS-230) underway off New London, Connecticut, 7 March 1949.
USS Finback (SS-230) underway off New London, Connecticut, 7 March 1949.

The ‘Great Marianas Turkey Shoot’


20 June 1944: The ‘Great Marianas Turkey Shoot’

I kept telling them to turn on the lights because too many people were going in the water. Finally they did turn on the lights. Authorities claim that Admiral Mitscher was responsible for this, but I claim I was the one they could hear bitching and asking them to do it. They not only turned on the lights but they turned On vertical searchlight beams. So it was like a carnival out there. I circled my home carrier and finally got aboard. The first question we all asked that night was. “What ship is this?” because you could not tell one ship from the other.

Watching contrails over the US fleet as the 'Great Marianas Turkey Shoot' unfolds before them.
Watching contrails over the US fleet as the ‘Great Marianas Turkey Shoot’ unfolds before them.
USS Bunker Hill is nearly hit by a Japanese bomb during the air attacks of June 19, 1944.
USS Bunker Hill is nearly hit by a Japanese bomb during the air attacks of June 19, 1944.
Air combat off the Marianas - where US planes dominated.
Air combat off the Marianas – where US planes dominated.
Japanese aircraft shot down
Japanese aircraft shot down as it attempted to attack escort carrier Kitkun Bay, near Marianas Islands, Jun 1944

In the Pacific war the huge disparity in the resources that US could put into battle as compared with the Japanese was now clearly evident. In a short space of time the US Navy had not only recovered from Pearl Harbour but had expanded dramatically. The superiority of their ships and planes was now much in evidence. The clash of the two battle fleets off the Marianas, where the US were engaged in the invasion of Saipan demonstrated this only too clearly.

On the 19th Japanese planes had attacked the US fleet and had come off worse. They suffered such huge losses that what was officially known as the Battle of the Philippine Sea became more widely known as the ‘Great Marianas Turkey Shoot’. The Japanese were misled in believing that their carrier borne aircraft had landed at the nearby airfields on Tinian and Guam – in fact they had suffered devastating losses and most had been shot down.

There were further Japanese losses on the 20th. This time the US fleet were trying to locate the Japanese fleet – and it took almost all day before it was located. In a risky manoeuvre the US planes were launched late in the day to attack the Japanese ships, knowing that the mass of US planes would return to their own fleet in darkness.

Max Strean was in command of Fighter Squadron 1 based on the USS Yorktown:

We sat all day long waiting for information about where the Japanese ships came from. There had to be a fleet out there.

It was on the afternoon of the twentieth when the word came. The report turned out to be in error one degree, which was sixtv miles out of position. They launched us all — everybody they could — and sent us out to attack the fleet. It was four o’clock in the afternoon and the enemy was about two to three hundred miles distant. After we got in the air they corrected the position.

It was going to be well after dark when we got back to the carriers, but we were night qualified and so they sent us out anyway knowing we would arrive over the enemy before the end of daylight.

I was leading the fighter sweep for the whole of Marc Mitscher’s Task Force 58. We had several squadrons of fighters, and we went out first to sweep the area of their defending aircraft.

We got there and we saw the fleet. There was nobody to defend them, for there was nothing in the air that we could find. So we continued sweeping the area until our bombers came in.

Japanese ships taking sharp evasive action during the 20 June attack.
Japanese ships taking sharp evasive action during the 20 June attack.

The Japs had several task groups deployed with destroyers in a perfect circle around their carriers. They had a cruiser or a battleship supporting the carriers with antiaircraft fire. As our bombers came down on them they did a tight circle turn and fired all kinds of colored ammunition. It was quite a sight.

the 20th June attack on the Japanese fleet.
The 20th June attack on the Japanese fleet.

It was about dark when our people finished bombing. Then we fighters made an attack on their ships because we were carrying bombs in case we didn’t have to fight their cover. I was credited with a bomb hit on the Taka, an aircraft carrier, a large converted carrier, one of their important ones.

Then we started back to our carriers. The weather was pretty bad, with towering cumulus. It was dark and difficult to get in formation. I think 1 could only find about four people to lead back to the carrier, which was about 350 miles away. When we got back there it was drizzling rain.

That was the greatest fiasco the navy ever had. The lights had been turned off on the carriers. Japanese pilots in Zeros were supposedly in the landing circle. When I first got back I found my own carrier with our direction finder (we called it a Hay rake), but then it was so dark that in making a turn I apparently found another carrier. (It was not possible to recognize a carrier when you got close to it except by its wake and shape.)

There must have been about thirty people circling her, when only six were supposed to be there at one time. I got down in the circle nevertheless, for I thought thai if they couldn’t get aboard I could. But every time I came around to land it was a foul deck and they gave me the wave off.

That carrier turned out to be a light carrier, a small one. They turned off the lights and told us to get away. I thought that was damned unfeeling of them, for here we were about to get our feet wet.

I still had some fuel; I had about thirty gallons. The fighters did all right, but the bombers were going in the water one after the other. This was all part of the confusion. People were saying they were going in the water and the carriers were throwing in float lights as a result. After telling the light carrier what I thought about them, I pulled up and got on the Hayrake again and started searching for the Yorktown.

Every carrier was surrounded. You couldn’t get lined up unless you were close to the carrier. You could see the deck then and could try to come around and get in position by seeing the wake aft.

In looking for my carrier I must have made approaches on perhaps four or five ships. One turned out to be a battleship. I was frustrated and didn’t know where to go from there. I was trying to figure out what I would do. so I just continued my approach. Gee, that battleship! They turned on the lights. They fired Very pistols and yelled. “”Pilot trying to land on the battleship — get away, get away!” Well. I pulled up and got again on the Hayrake and found my own carrier.

I kept telling them to turn on the lights because too many people were going in the water. Finally they did turn on the lights. Authorities claim that Admiral Mitscher was responsible for this, but I claim I was the one they could hear bitching and asking them to do it. They not only turned on the lights but they turned On vertical searchlight beams. So it was like a carnival out there.

I circled my home carrier and finally got aboard. The first question we all asked that night was. “What ship is this?” because you could not tell one ship from the other.

This account appears in The Pacific War Remembered: An Oral History Collection

Around 80 aircraft were forced to crash into the sea during the end of this episode, although three quarters of the crew were saved. This brought US aircraft losses to 123 – compared with Japanese losses of 550-645 over the two day battle.

A Helldiver approaching the USS Yorktown.
Admiral Marc Mitscher in command of Task Force 58 during the battle.
Admiral Marc Mitscher in command of Task Force 58 during the battle.

Operation Cockpit – the Japanese surprised at Sabang


19 April 1944: Operation Cockpit – the Japanese surprised at Sabang

At the rate of ten tons a minute, 350 tons of steel and high explosive struck Sabang in the 35 minutes the bombardment lasted. Battleships; cruisers and destroyers poured shells varying from 4-in. to 15-in. into the base at close range. When the flagship turned away after completing her firing she was only two miles from the green, jungle-covered hills which rise steeply from the sea around Sabang.

A surprise raid on Sabang in northern Sumatra. A general view from one of the attacking planes showing a blazing oil tank with oil spreading out over the harbour area, burning docks, warehouses and ships. In the foreground is a Japanese destroyer which was set on fire by fighters. 19 April 1944
A surprise raid on Sabang in northern Sumatra. A general view from one of the attacking planes showing a blazing oil tank with oil spreading out over the harbour area, burning docks, warehouses and ships. In the foreground is a Japanese destroyer which was set on fire by fighters. 19 April 1944
Throttled back, an American built Chance-Vought Corsair starts to sink to the deck of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS prior to landing
Throttled back, an American built Chance-Vought Corsair starts to sink to the deck of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS prior to landing
Seventeen Fairey Barracuda bombers and 13 Chance-Vought F4U Corsair fighters from HMS ILLUSTRIOUS and 11 Grumman TBM “Avenger” torpedo-bombers, 18 Douglas “Dauntless” dive-bombers and 24 Grumman F6F“Hellcat” fighters from USS SARATOGA attacked Sabang harbor and nearby Lho Nga airfield. The attack caught the Japanese by surprise and there was no fighter opposition.
Seventeen Fairey Barracuda bombers and 13 Chance-Vought F4U Corsair fighters from HMS ILLUSTRIOUS and 11 Grumman TBM “Avenger” torpedo-bombers, 18 Douglas “Dauntless” dive-bombers and 24 Grumman F6F“Hellcat” fighters from USS SARATOGA attacked Sabang harbor and nearby Lho Nga airfield. The attack caught the Japanese by surprise and there was no fighter opposition.

The British Far Eastern Fleet, with USS Saratoga, sailed from Trincomalee, on 16 April 1944, and on 19 April 1944 attacked the port of Sabang, on the northwestern tip of Sumatra in the Dutch East Indies. The Japanese were caught completely by surprise and the combined effort destroyed oil refineries, huge storage tanks and transportation facilities. In addition the minelayer Hatsutaka, and the transports Kunitsu Maru and Haruno Maru were sunk.

See records of US Carrier Air Group 12

This was a truly multinational force including aircraft the carriers HMS Illustrious and the USS Saratoga, the French battleship Richelieu as well as Dutch and New Zealand ships.

Reuters correspondent Alan Humphrey was there to give this dramatic account for the worlds’ press:

At the rate of ten tons a minute, 350 tons of steel and high explosive struck Sabang in the 35 minutes the bombardment lasted. Battleships; cruisers and destroyers poured shells varying from 4-in. to 15-in. into the base at close range. When the flagship turned away after completing her firing she was only two miles from the green, jungle-covered hills which rise steeply from the sea around Sabang.

It was the first time that any Allied naval surface force had been in sight of Sumatra since the dark days of the Japanese onrush in 1942.

The fleet reached its objective unobserved and the ‘first thing the Japanese knew was intensive strafing by carrier-based Corsair fighters. Among the Corsairs’ targets were three airfields, including one at Kota Raja on the Sumatra mainland. Confirming suspicions that Japan’s air strength was’weak,’ only four aircraft were found and all destroyed. Disturbing as was the air raid to serene Japanese slumbers, the first reaction of the defenders when they saw the powerful battle fleet closing in must have been one of extreme dismay.

The fleet was divided into five forces for the operation. The carriers with their escort stayed a considerable way out at sea. The aircraft went strafing, were ready to deal with any Japanese aircraft coming up, provided an umbrella over the warships and acted as spotters for the guns. Battleships made up another force. A third force which included Dutch warships penetrated the harbour and dealt with installations at Sabang. Two other forces were devoted to attacks on coastal targets east and west of Sabang.

Just before 6.55 a.m. — zero hour — the loudspeakers announced: “Two minutes to go !” An unusual silence developed, so that sounds normally unnoticed became insistent, the remote slap of spray, the faint hiss from the funnel, the bubbling whistle, of wind in the wires just overhead. Then with a great belch of flame, a greater belch of orange-brown smoke, a blast of hot air and a jolt back on to the heels, the first salvo was fired from the big guns at a range of 17,000 yards.

A rating fired his own shot. “Share that lot amongst you!” he said, as the guns roared. One by one resonant booms told that the other battleships had joined in the bombardment. Then began the process described beforehand by a gunnery officer; of “inflicting the maximum damage in the minimum time”. The particular target of the flagship was the military barracks area, and in the words of the same gunnery oflicer, the Japanese garrison there was given “a new type of reveille in the form of a 15-in. ‘brick’”.

For the next quarter of an hour it was a rapid succession of jarring explosions. The force going into the harbour was firing furiously, one destroyer depressing a multiple pom-pom and spraying the defences with that also.

Three Japanese batteries inside the harbour engaged these warships, a number of bursts throwing up grey gouts of water all round and close to them. On the run in one battery was silenced, the workshops and wharves were attacked, and a large crane was seen to topple over.

Two batteries were silenced on the run back. The report on the operations concluded with the words “quite a skylark!”.

The remainder of the fleet carried out the bombardment unmolested; it appeared there were no coastal batteries. All the time a great cloud of smoke was steadily thickening over Sabang, a testimony to the weight and accuracy of the bombardment.

The Japanese defenders, who made only the slightest reaction to the air attack, apparently nettled at last, whistled up their aircraft, possibly from Sumatra, possibly from Malaya.

Two hours after the fleet withdrew, a Japanese two-engined bomber was reported approaching. It was shot down by Corsairs. Shortly afterwards a Zero fighter found the fleet. He came in as close as ten miles, then started to run home. He reported from 14 miles away, then 25, then 28. At this point‘ the fighters‘ cried “Tallyho!” and a moment later the Zero went into the sea 30 miles away.

See also New Zealand History

Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats of fighter squadron VF-3 on the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) in October 1941. The plane on the aircraft elevator is 3-F-9 (BuNo 3982), piloted by Ensign Gayle Hermann. This plane was in service with VF-6 in December 1941 and hit by "friendly" fire near Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (USA), on the night of 7 December 1941 while trying to land after a combat air patrol. It was badly damaged but the pilot could land the plane and luckily was uninjured.
Grumman F4F-3 Wildcats of fighter squadron VF-3 on the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) in October 1941. The plane on the aircraft elevator is 3-F-9 (BuNo 3982), piloted by Ensign Gayle Hermann. This plane was in service with VF-6 in December 1941 and hit by “friendly” fire near Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (USA), on the night of 7 December 1941 while trying to land after a combat air patrol. It was badly damaged but the pilot could land the plane and luckily was uninjured.
The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) in 1943/44. The photo was taken from one of her planes of Carrier Air Group 12 (CVG-12), of which many aircraft are visible on deck, Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers (aft), Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters (mostly forward), and Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bombers.
The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) in 1943/44. The photo was taken from one of her planes of Carrier Air Group 12 (CVG-12), of which many aircraft are visible on deck, Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers (aft), Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters (mostly forward), and Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bombers.

USS Yorktown fights off Japanese ‘Kates’


4th December 1943: USS Yorktown fights off Japanese ‘Kates’

1247 U.S.S. San Francisco and U.S.S.Yorktown opened fire on low flying planes off port bow. Three planes were shot down, one falling close astern of this vessel. These planes were identified as KATES.
1445 This vessel landed strike number two aboard. The Air Group Commander reported damage inflicted upon enemy installations, aircraft and one enemy cargo ship at Wotje.

U.S. Navy Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat fighters of fighter squadron VF-5, Carrier Air Group Five (CVG-5), are readied for a strike against Marcus Island aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-10) on 31 August 1943.
U.S. Navy Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat fighters of fighter squadron VF-5, Carrier Air Group Five (CVG-5), are readied for a strike against Marcus Island aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-10) on 31 August 1943.

After the successful assaults on the Marshall and the Gilbert Islands – including the bloody battles at Tarawa – many of the escorting ships returned to the U.S. Pacific base at Pearl harbour. En route, on 4th December, the planes from the carriers made attacks on the Japanese occupied Kwajalein Atoll and Wotje Atoll.

Later in the day they came under attack from Japanese planes. A fairly routine day of operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet at the time.

The 4th December is probably most notable for the dramatic photograph taken just after one of the Japanese attackers was hit:

The Yorktown picture seen around the world, the famous "Flaming Kate",
The Yorktown picture seen around the world, the famous “Flaming Kate”, made from aft end of Yorktown’s flight deck, 4th December 1943, photographed by Chief Petty Officer Photographer’s Mate Alfred N. Cooperman. Life Magazine featured this picture in full page color.

It was a busy day for the Task Group as this report from the War Diary of the U.S.S. Yorktown makes clear:

December 4th 1943 – Saturday

Steaming as before in formation 5 – R.

At 0515 Flight Quarters were sounded and at 0550 General Quarters were sounded in preparation for attacks against Kwajalein Atoll and Wotje Atoll.

At 0629 this vessel commenced launching planes of strike one of operation plan A3-43.

At 0843 changed disposition to 5-V as the threat of air attack is greater than one of submarine or surface vessels.

By 1100 planes of strike one has returned aboard. The Air Group Commander reported that the enemy had been caught by surprise and damage had been inflicted on enemy shipping, aircraft and installations.

At 1200, strike number two was launched as ordered against Wotje Atoll.

At 1205, low-flying enemy planes were reported in the vicinity.

1208 alert, starboard bow.

1209 U.S.S.Lexington reported shooting down three torpedo planes, all torpedoes passing astern.

At 12:40 this vessel commenced landing a combat air patrol.

1247 U.S.S. San Francisco and U.S.S.Yorktown opened fire on low flying planes off port bow. Three planes were shot down, one falling close astern of this vessel. These planes were identified as KATES.

1445 This vessel landed strike number two aboard. The Air Group Commander reported damage inflicted upon enemy installations, aircraft and one enemy cargo ship at Wotje.

1847 Planes were reported by radar at 130°(T), 66 miles and 166°(T), 47 miles. The Task Force manoeuvred to avoid these planes. These planes seem to be flying in “expanding squares”.

1947 One group of planes closed to 21 miles and the U.S.S.Oakland left the disposition for a position”Downmoon” of the task group.

1959 Task Group 50.3 was seen to open fire.

2100 Planes at 250°(T), 21 miles and 23° (T), 17 miles closing (10– 15) planes. Task group manoeuvring to avoid planes.

2107 Ships astern open fire.

2131 Plane reported at 080°(T), 8 miles and many others over the U.S.S.Oakland.

2200 All planes opened distance.

2230 U.S.S. Enterprise reported loss of power on one screw. Speed reduced to 23 knots.

2253 Planes began closing again. Task Force manoeuvred to avoid planes.

2300 Ships astern open fire and planes opened the distance.

2315 Planes closed again and other ships open fire.

2320 Task group 50.3 was seen to open fire.

2323 Flare dropped on port bow. Task group changed course to starboard. Commenced firing at two planes to starboard.

2332 U.S.S.Lexington reported being hit by torpedo and losing steering control.

C.T.G. 50.1 reported his intention of standing by the USS Lexington and told C.T.G. 50.1 to remain in the vicinity to give assistance.

The U.S.S.Oakland, U.S.S.New Orleans and U.S.S.Chauncey were told to stand by the U.S.S.Lexington to render assistance.

2400 U.S.S.Lexington reported being able to make 20 knots but unable to use steering engine.

A burning Japanese torpedo-bomber falls after being knocked down by artillery from American warships. Date	ca. 4 December 1943.
A burning Japanese torpedo-bomber falls after being knocked down by artillery from American warships.
Date ca. 4 December 1943.

USS Saratoga planes attack Japanese ships in Rabaul


5th November 1943: USS Saratoga planes attack Japanese ships in Rabaul

It was the longest launching way from the target the Navy had ever done at the time. After the launch, the SARATOGA was supposed to turn and run for her life. If we got out of Rabaul, we were supposed to try to land in the water at Empress August Bay, where the Marines were just making a landing and there was no airstrip yet. So we went [behind a weather front which helped to surprise the Japanese], into Rabaul to the [Japanese] fleet. That was our first strike on Rabaul. I got … a heavy cruiser.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) in 1943/44. The photo was taken from one of her planes of Carrier Air Group 12 (CVG-12), of which many aircraft are visible on deck, Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers (aft), Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters (mostly forward), and Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bombers.
US Navy pilots Ensign Charles Miller, Lieutenant (jg) Henry Dearing, and Lieutenant (jg) Bus Alber walking toward their aircraft aboard USS Saratoga, 5 Nov 1943; note F6F fighter.

After the attack on Rabaul harbour on the 2nd November a new threat developed for the landings on Bougainville. The Japanese had been careful to avoid exposing their ships to undue risk but they now felt compelled to bring in a force of seven heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and three destroyers. They were spotted refuelling in Rabaul and it was obvious they were set for an attack on the ships off Bougainville. The U.S. had no capital ships near enough that would be able to challenge a force of this strength. For Admiral ‘Bull’ Halsey it was:

the most desperate emergency that confronted me in my entire term as ComSoPac

.

He did have two carriers available, even though the only other previous comparable attack by carrier planes had been at Pearl Harbour itself. On that occasion the attackers had enjoyed complete surprise.

The USS Saratoga and USS Princetown steamed through the night to get within range and then launched all 97 available planes for an early attack, followed by a bombing attack by land based planes. Not only were the planes at risk but also the carriers.

Japanese warships attempt to get under way while under attack from US Navy aircraft. Date	5 November 1943
Japanese warships attempt to get under way while under attack from US Navy aircraft.
Date 5 November 1943

The following account of the action comes from an interview with one of the pilots on the raid, Robert Lee Cropper:

What aircraft were you flying at that point?

Cropper: [The] TBF which preceded the TBM. [The TBF was a carrier-based bomber which carried a 2000 pound bomb or torpedo. It was called the Avenger.] We operated around Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. We had just bombed [Japanese ] bases on Bougainville Island, and were pulling back to refuel when we got rush orders [concerning] the proposed Marine invasion in Empress Augusta Bay on the south side of Bougainville. We had to steam all the way around the Solomon Islands, back around Guadalcanal and up because a [Japanese battle fleet] of cruisers had just come into Rabaul [harbor] and were going to sail down to wipe out the landing of the Marines. The Marines had no sea support other than a couple of destroyers, I think. So we launched [all our planes], and it was the longest launching way from the target the Navy had ever done at the time. After the launch, the SARATOGA was supposed to turn and run for her life. If we got out of Rabaul, we were supposed to try to land in the water at Empress August Bay, where the Marines were just making a landing and there was no airstrip yet. So we went [behind a weather front which helped to surprise the Japanese], into Rabaul to the [Japanese] fleet. That was our first strike on Rabaul. I got … a heavy cruiser.

The Japanese cruiser Chikuma under attack on 5th November 1943.
The Japanese cruiser Chikuma under attack on 5th November 1943

Harrison: What class was that?

Cropper: [The one I hit was a Tone class, heavy cruiser.] I came around and my wing tip was almost lying on a volcanic mountain at the entrance to the Harbor. [The Japanese] fleet was steaming out, trying to get to sea so that they could maneuver. When I hit [the cruiser] and came over him, I passed over the bow of this cruiser after dropping my torpedo. Now this [Japanese] cruiser had four mounts of eight inch cannons going off, but I was right at bridge level off my wing tip. I could see the officers on the bridge as I passed over. I was being chewed up by a [Japanese fighter] sea plane, of all things, because they couldn’t go fast. A torpedo plane had no great speed [either], but…I managed to outrun him. But he chewed me up pretty bad, but we got back to the ship. Our captain had kept steaming ahead instead of obeying orders and turning to flee. So we came back and landed aboard, [and] went around the Solomons.

Harrison: Did you ever find the name of the cruiser that you sank?

Cropper: [Post war naval archive research shows it was the CHIKUMA. The Navy thought she sank, and, though severely damaged, the Japanese kept her afloat and later repaired her. She was sunk a year later with the loss of her entire crew in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.]

The full interview and account of Cropper’s service was originally available at Worcester County Veterans Memorial- http://www.opvets.com/opvets/article/3472. It may be possible to access this from the internet archive.

In all the U.S. planes managed to damage nearly all of the Japanese ships, forcing them to retire the force to Truk for repairs. It was a stunning victory.

However the US forces also had their casualties and several families would subsequently receive letters like this:

Haniotis-10.

The full tribute to Lt. George C. Haniotis, pilot of P-38 Lightning from the fighter escort, missing in action 5 November 1943 following a dogfight with Japanese Zero fighters, can be read at Purple Hearts.

SBD Dauntless crewman Alva Parker, having suffered neck and shoulder shrapnel wounds over Rabaul, New Britain, being helped from the aircraft after landing on USS Saratoga, 5 Nov 1943
Aircrewman, wounded during raid on Rabaul, on board the USS Saratoga (CV-3). Alva Parker (ARM1) who suffered shrapnel wounds in neck and shoulders, rests in litter, 11/05/1943.

Pitched battles all around Pedestal convoy

12th August 1942: Pitched battles all around Pedestal convoy

I decide to carry out a second depth-charge attack and the ship is just turning when a roar goes up, ‘There she is.’ It was a successful attack, and the U-boat has come to the surface, but the job is not yet finished. Perhaps she will crash-dive and try to escape. We can take no chances. So, ‘Full ahead both engines; prepare to ram.’ The guns need no orders. They have already opened fire and the U-boat is getting seven bells knocked out of her.

12 August: Air attacks: An Italian aerial reconnaissance photograph of the convoy.
An Italian torpedo bomber comes under fire as it begins its run to attack the British fleet.
16-inch guns on the battleship HMS RODNEY open fire whilst she is steaming in the Western Mediterranean. In the foreground can be seen one of the battleship’s 4.7 inch guns in an open turret. Note how the barrels of the 16 inch guns are of uneven length, due to the recoil of the gun after firing.

Inevitably as the Pedestal convoy got closer to Italy, and the air bases on Sicily and Sardinia, the air attacks on it intensified. Enemy aircraft now had much longer time to spend over their targets and time to co-ordinate their attacks. The U-boat threat had not diminished and for a period the destroyers were firing depth charges merely asa deterrent.

L. Myers was on board the battleship HMS Rodney. He recalls that they were in almost continuous action for three days starting with the sinking of HMS Eagle. It was the following day that things started to get really busy for them:

The action, when it started, was a fairly gentlemanly affair with a few high level bombing and submarine attacks. But on the second day things got really hectic with combined high level bombing, torpedo bombing, dive bombing and submarine attacks. The action diary for this day as recorded by Kenneth Thompson, the ship’s Chaplain in his book ‘HMS Rodney at war’ lists some 80 plus entries between 0745 and 2015.

A short extract
1236 Mine, bomb or torpedo explodes astern
1239 Manchester opens fire
1241 Destroyers open fire port side
1242 Nine torpedo bombers coming in outside screen
1243 16″ open fire to port
1245 Torpedoes dropped port bow
1248 Six torpedo bombers on port beam
1248 Torpedo bomber shot down by fighter red 10
(Note use of 16″ in ack ack role)

Whenever possible I made my way to the upper deck to observe the operation of our two remaining carriers, ‘Indomitable’ and ‘Victorious’. With the convoy under constant air attack from dawn to dusk there was continual flight deck activity. It must be remembered that fresh aircrew manned each succeeding wave of enemy aircraft whereas our small band of pilots were continuously in action. I watched the aircraft land on and taxi to the forward lift where it was lowered into the hangar, I could imagine the action as it was moved back through the hangar being refuelled, rearmed and repaired while the pilot was debriefed, having a cup of coffee and a pee (not necessarily in that order) and by the time the aircraft reached the after lift he was ready to go again.

It was possibly the most concentrated period of action in the annals of the Fleet Air Arm. Very comparable to the Battle of Britain but with the added hazards of a moving airfield, having to fly through ‘friendly’ flak to reach it and flying aircraft inferior in performance to those of the enemy.

Regretfully I have no statistics to cover this period but the performance of those young Naval aviators is deserving of the highest praise.
I had many friends in both ships and was well aware of the intense activity that was taking place both on the deck and in the crowded hangar below.

Must admit to some embarrassment at the comparatively easy passage I was having but at the same time must admit to being very grateful for the security provided by the Rodney’s 14″ of armour plating.

Read more of Myers’ story on BBC People’s War

12 August: The sinking of the Italian submarine COBALTO: HMS ITHURIEL coming in to ram the COBALTO.

Elsewhere HMS Ithuriel had spotted a U-boat, the Italian Cobalto’s periscope had left a trail in the water, just visible to a lookout on the destroyer. Even though the periscope was withdrawn an attack was made where it was last spotted :

‘Stand by depth-charges. Depth-charges, fire’ The able seaman standing by the firing levers pulls them, and after a few seconds the ship shudders as they explode violently astern of us. ‘Quite a good attack I think, Sir,’ says the RNVR Sub Lieutenant, and everybody looks astern, hoping for some signs of wreckage to appear.

I decide to carry out a second depth-charge attack and the ship is just turning when a roar goes up, ‘There she is.’ It was a successful attack, and the U-boat has come to the surface, but the job is not yet finished. Perhaps she will crash-dive and try to escape. We can take no chances. So, ‘Full ahead both engines; prepare to ram.’ The guns need no orders. They have already opened fire and the U-boat is getting seven bells knocked out of her.

Some of the Italians start shouting and jumping overboard. I give the order ‘Full speed astern’ to take some speed off the ship and avoid damaging ourselves unnecessarily. After all, you don’t need to use a hammer on a boiled egg, so to speak. We hit her abaft the conning tower and heel her right over. It is a delightful crunch.

Lieutenant-Commander D. H. Maitland-Makgill-Crichton DSO RN, Captain of HMS Ithuriel – first published in the Listener, 22nd October, 1942.

12 August: The sinking of the Italian submarine COBALTO: A photograph taken from HMS ITHURIEL showing the COBALTO passing down the destroyer’s port side after she had been rammed.
12 August: The bombing of HMS INDOMITABLE: HMS INDOMITABLE on fire after being bombed. A Dido class cruiser, HMS CHARYBDIS, is screening the carrier.
12 August: The bombing of HMS INDOMITABLE: Detailed photograph of the damage to HMS INDOMITABLE’s flight deck.
12 August: The bombing of HMS INDOMITABLE: The score-board for the successes of HMS INDOMITABLE’s air group painted on the island. INDOMITABLE’s fighters claimed to have shot down 38 Axis aircraft.
12 August: Evening Air and Submarine Attacks: The Italian submarine AXUM’s torpedo strikes the tanker OHIO on her port side.

Operation Pedestal gets under way

10th August 1942: Operation Pedestal gets under way

Sooner or later the peace would be shattered; jumping at every pipe, at every change in course or revs, screamed out for it to happen and be done with. All morning the ships steamed on in undisturbed calm. Then, suddenly, in the afternoon watch, two Wildcats from Victorious went tearing into the air. We moved nearer the island, hoping for tit-bits of news. The Tannoy crackled. It was the Commander: “Victorious has scrambled two fighters after a suspected shadower. That’s all for the moment.”

Photograph taken from the after end of VICTORIOUS’ flight deck showing HMS INDOMITABLE and EAGLE. A Hawker Sea Hurricane and a Fairey Albacore are ranged on VICTORIOUS’ flight deck.

The business of trying to get a [permalink id=20162 text=”convoy through to Malta”] continued. The Mediterranean island was standing up to the daily assault by Italian and German bombers, and now that [permalink id=21147 text=”Spitfires”] formed part of its defence, giving a very good account of itself. But without fuel, ammunition and food the island could not hold out for ever.

The Royal Navy now mounted its most ambitious convoy escort operation ever. Fifteen merchant ships were escorted by five aircraft carriers; INDOMITABLE, VICTORIOUS, EAGLE, FURIOUS and ARGUS, two battleships; NELSON and RODNEY, seven cruisers and thirty destroyers.

Arming a Hawker Sea Hurricane fighter on board HMS INDOMITABLE.

Hugh Popham was flying a Sea Hurricane from HMS Indomitable. He describes the first day as the fleet crept into the Mediterranean hoping to avoid detection until the last possible moment:

During the night of August 9th, the convoy and its escorts entered the Mediterranean.

From first light the following morning four fighters were kept at immediate readiness; engines warmed up, pilots strapped in. The day broke fine and clear; all round us the ships moved easily over the sea in a profound and tranquil dream.

From time to time, Albacores took off on A/S patrol, others landed – on, and hardly disturbed the serenity. The aerials of the radar sets turned steadily through their 360 degrees, sweeping the empty skies. Submerged beneath the surface inaction, men pored over their sets, listened intently to the crackle of their headphones, peered through their binoculars in the look-out positions, with unblinking, rapt vigilance. and nerves.

Sooner or later the peace would be shattered; jumping at every pipe, at every change in course or revs, screamed out for it to happen and be done with. All morning the ships steamed on in undisturbed calm.

Then, suddenly, in the afternoon watch, two Wildcats from Victorious went tearing into the air. We moved nearer the island, hoping for tit-bits of news. The Tannoy crackled. It was the Commander: “Victorious has scrambled two fighters after a suspected shadower. That’s all for the moment.”

We waited, nerves prickling. That was how it would start, with a shadower picked up on the radar, lurking low down on the horizon or at a great height, and sending sighting reports back to base. But not yet.

This was not a shadower but a Vichy French flying-boat, probably about its lawful business, a routine trip from Toulon to Morocco. But Admiral Syfret was taking no chances. Without enthusiasm, it was shot into the sea. When it sighted our fighters, it would know that there was a fleet in the vicinity; its course would have taken it within sight of us; if it was left in peace, the news would be out.

One day’s less grace might make all the difference, to us, to the convoy, to Malta at the far end of the line, already on starvation rations and almost out of petrol for her lighters and ammunition for her guns.

That was the key. What happened to us, the forty fighting ships deployed on this smooth sea, was unimportant so long as the little knot of merchantmen in the centre reached their destination. To ensure that, we were, if need be expendable.

See Hugh Popham: Sea Flight: Fleet Air Arm Pilot’s Story

The convoy to Malta, with its huge escort, about to enter the Mediterranean. Fifteen merchant ships were escorted by five aircraft carriers; INDOMITABLE, VICTORIOUS, EAGLE, FURIOUS and ARGUS, two battleships; NELSON and RODNEY, seven cruisers and thirty destroyers.

Japanese cruiser Mikuma sunk, USS Yorktown torpedoed

6th June 1942: Japanese cruiser Mikuma sunk, USS Yorktown torpedoed

He led the second division of his squadron in a coordinated glide-bombing and dive-bombing assault upon a Japanese battleship. Undeterred by a fateful approach glide, during which his ship was struck and set afire, he grimly pressed home his attack to an altitude of five hundred feet, released his bomb to score a near-miss on the stern of his target, then crashed to the sea in flames.

His dauntless perseverance and unyielding devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

SBD "Dauntless" dive bombers from USS Hornet (CV-8) approaching the burning Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma to make the third set of attacks on her, during the early afternoon of 6 June 1942. Mikuma had been hit earlier by strikes from Hornet and USS Enterprise (CV-6), leaving her dead in the water and fatally damaged. Photo was enlarged from a 16mm color motion picture film. Note bombs hung beneath these planes.

The Battle of Midway had yet to be fully played out. The toll on the pilots and airmen of the bombers and torpedo planes had been heavy, only a minority would live to see the victory they had won.

The Japanese cruiser Mikuma had been attacked the previous day, during that fearless assault Captain Richard E. Fleming had won the Medal of Honor :

Captain Richard E. Fleming, Medal of Honor recipient

For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty as Flight Officer, Marine Scout-Bombing Squadron TWO FORTY-ONE during action against enemy Japanese forces in the Battle of Midway on June 4 and 5, 1942.

When his squadron Commander was shot down during the initial attack upon an enemy aircraft carrier, Captain Fleming led the remainder of the division with such fearless determination that he dived his own plane to the perilously low altitude of four hundred feet before releasing his bomb. Although his craft was riddled by 179 hits in the blistering hail of fire that burst upon him from Japanese fighter guns and antiaircraft batteries, he pulled out with only two minor wounds inflicted upon himself.

On the night of June 4, when the Squadron Commander lost his way and became separated from the others, Captain Fleming brought his own plane in for a safe landing at its base despite hazardous weather conditions and total darkness.

The following day, after less than four hours’ sleep, he led the second division of his squadron in a coordinated glide-bombing and dive-bombing assault upon a Japanese battleship. Undeterred by a fateful approach glide, during which his ship was struck and set afire, he grimly pressed home his attack to an altitude of five hundred feet, released his bomb to score a near-miss on the stern of his target, then crashed to the sea in flames.

His dauntless perseverance and unyielding devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma, photographed from a USS Enterprise (CV-6) SBD aircraft during the afternoon of 6 June 1942, after she had been bombed by planes from Enterprise and USS Hornet (CV-8). Note her shattered midships structure, torpedo dangling from the after port side tubes and wreckage atop her number four eight-inch gun turret.
A diagrammatic representation of the damage sustained by USS Yorktown on the 4th June.

The USS Yorktown had been abandoned on the 4th June. When it became apparent that she was not going to sink she was re-boarded and attempts made to bring her under control. The destroyer the USS Hammann came alongside to assist in these operations. It was at this point, with the carrier lying dead in the water that Japanese submarine I-168 struck. One torpedo was to hit the Hammann causing catastrophic damage that quickly sunk her. Two others passed under the Hamman and proved to be the fatal blow for the Yorktown.

USS Hammann (DD-412) sinking with stern high, after being torpedoed by Japanese submarine I-168 in the afternoon of 6 June 1942. Photographed from the starboard forecastle deck of USS Yorktown (CV-5) by Photographer 2nd Class William G. Roy. Angular structure in right foreground is the front of Yorktown's forward starboard 5-inch gun gallery. Note knotted lines hanging down from the carrier's flight deck, remaining from her initial abandonment on 4 June.
A diagrammatic representation of the damage sustained by USS Yorktown on 6th June 1942 when the destroyer USS Hamman was alongside her

Carrier planes clash in Battle of the Coral Sea

8th May 1942: Carrier planes clash in Battle of the Coral Sea

He led his section of dive bombers down to the target from an altitude of 18,000 feet, through a wall of bursting antiaircraft shells and into the face of enemy fighter planes. Again, completely disregarding the safety altitude and without fear or concern for his safety, Lt. Powers courageously pressed home his attack, almost to the very deck of an enemy carrier and did not release his bomb until he was sure of a direct hit.

USS Yorktown (CV-5) operating in the vicinity of the Coral Sea, April 1942. Photographed from a TBD-1 torpedo plane that has just taken off from her deck. Other TBD and SBD aircraft are also ready to be launched.

After many months of apparently unstoppable Japanese advances a joint American-Australian naval force finally hit back decisively. In the first naval engagement in which the two sides never saw each others ships the carrier based aircraft from USS Lexington and USS Yorktown engaged the Japanese invasion force heading for Port Moresby on New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Bombs burst near the Japanese aircraft carrier Shokaku as she was attacked by USS Yorktown (CV-5) planes in the morning of 8 May 1942. Note anti-aircraft shell burst in left center, with fragments splashing below and further left.
Lieutenant Powers won the Medal of Honor for his determined attacks on Japanese ships.

The nature of the fighting can be understood from the citation for the Medal of Honor won by Lieutenant John Powers. The determination of the carrier based bombers to press home their attack in the face of sustained anti-aircraft fire was to be crucial to this type of battle:

For distinguished and conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, while pilot of an airplane of Bombing Squadron 5, Lt. Powers participated, with his squadron, in 5 engagements with Japanese forces in the Coral Sea area and adjacent waters during the period 4 to 8 May 1942.

Three attacks were made on enemy objectives at or near Tulagi on 4 May. In these attacks he scored a direct hit which instantly demolished a large enemy gunboat or destroyer and is credited with 2 close misses, 1 of which severely damaged a large aircraft tender, the other damaging a 20,000-ton transport.

He fearlessly strafed a gunboat, firing all his ammunition into it amid intense antiaircraft fire. This gunboat was then observed to be leaving a heavy oil slick in its wake and later was seen beached on a nearby island.

On 7 May, an attack was launched against an enemy airplane carrier and other units of the enemy’s invasion force. He fearlessly led his attack section of 3 Douglas Dauntless dive bombers, to attack the carrier. On this occasion he dived in the face of heavy antiaircraft fire, to an altitude well below the safety altitude, at the risk of his life and almost certain damage to his own plane, in order that he might positively obtain a hit in a vital part of the ship, which would insure her complete destruction. This bomb hit was noted by many pilots and observers to cause a tremendous explosion engulfing the ship in a mass of flame, smoke, and debris. The ship sank soon after.

That evening, in his capacity as Squadron Gunnery Officer, Lt. Powers gave a lecture to the squadron on point-of-aim and diving technique. During this discourse he advocated low release point in order to insure greater accuracy; yet he stressed the danger not only from enemy fire and the resultant low pull-out, but from own bomb blast and bomb fragments.

Thus his low-dive bombing attacks were deliberate and premeditated, since he well knew and realized the dangers of such tactics, but went far beyond the call of duty in order to further the cause which he knew to be right. The next morning, 8 May, as the pilots of the attack group left the ready room to man planes, his indomitable spirit and leadership were well expressed in his own words, “Remember the folks back home are counting on us. I am going to get a hit if I have to lay it on their flight deck.”

He led his section of dive bombers down to the target from an altitude of 18,000 feet, through a wall of bursting antiaircraft shells and into the face of enemy fighter planes. Again, completely disregarding the safety altitude and without fear or concern for his safety, Lt. Powers courageously pressed home his attack, almost to the very deck of an enemy carrier and did not release his bomb until he was sure of a direct hit.

He was last seen attempting recovery from his dive at the extremely low altitude of 200 feet, and amid a terrific barrage of shell and bomb fragments, smoke, flame and debris from the stricken vessel.

The crew of USS Lexington abandon ship. The destroyer alongside is taking off the sick and wounded while the able-bodied are sliding down ropes and being picked up by small boats. Not a man was lost in abandoning the ship. U. S. Navy.

Although the USS Lexington was sunk by bombs and torpedoes, and the USS Yorktown seriously damaged, the engagement is regarded as a victory for the Allied forces, leaving them with a strategic advantage. The invasion of Port Moresby was prevented and the Japanese position for future operations was significantly weakened by the loss of the Shokaku and the loss of most of the planes from the carrier Zuikaku .

For battle summary and more images see Naval History.

Doolittle raiders bomb Japan

18th April 1942: Doolittle raiders bomb Japan

Final instructions were to avoid non-military targets, particularly the Temple of Heaven, and even though we were put off so far at sea that it would be impossible to reach the China Coast, not to go to Siberia but to proceed as far West as possible, land on the water, launch the rubber boat and sail in.

A U.S. Army Air Force B-25B Mitchell medium bomber, one of sixteen involved in the mission, takes off from the flight deck of the USS Hornet for an air raid on the Japanese Home Islands, on April 18, 1942.

On 18th April 1942 sixteen B-25 bombers took off from the USS Hornet and headed for Japan. The unprecedented use of medium bombers from an aircraft carrier enabled the surprise attack on the Japanese homeland. Even with modifications and extra fuel the bombers were at the limit of their range and would not be able to return to the carrier. Instead, after bombing, they were to continue their flight over Japan and attempt to land in China or Russia.

When the USS Hornet was spotted by a Japanese patrol vessel the mission was brought forward, and the margin of error in the range was reduced even further. The crews all took off in the knowledge that they were very likely to have to crash land or ditch in the sea.

A crew member checks the lashings on his bomber aboard the USS Hornet, while behind him other crews check their planes in preparation for the Doolittle Raid on April 18, 1942.
American B-25B bombers rest on the flight deck of the USS Hornet, approaching the spot where the planes were launched on their raid on Tokyo, April 13, 1942. Escort ship in left background.
A U.S. Army Air Force B-25B bomber leaves the deck of the USS Hornet, for the historic raid on Tokyo under Maj. Gen. James Doolittle, on April 18, 1942. Each aircraft carried three 500-pound high-explosive bombs and one incendiary bomb.

The raid was led by Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, his post action report was completed in May 1942, by which time he had been promoted:

The first enemy patrol vessel was detected and avoided at 3:10 a.m. on the morning of April 18. The Navy task force was endeavoring to avoid a second one some time after daylight when they were picked up by a third. Although this patrol was sunk it understood that it got at least one radio message off to shore and it was consequently necessary for us to take off immediately. The take-off was made at Latitude 35° 43’N Longitude 153° 25’E approximately 824 statue miles East of the center of Tokyo. The Navy task force immediately retreated and in the afternoon was obliged to sink two more Japanese surface craft. It is of interest to note that even at this distance from Japan the ocean was apparently studded with Japanese craft.

Final instructions were to avoid non-military targets, particularly the Temple of Heaven, and even though we were put off so far at sea that it would be impossible to reach the China Coast, not to go to Siberia but to proceed as far West as possible, land on the water, launch the rubber boat and sail in.

Upon take-off each airplane circled to the right and flew over the Hornet lining the axis of the ship up with the drift sight. The course of the Hornet was displayed in large figures from the gun turret abaft the island. This, through the use of the airplane compass and directional gyro permitted the establishment of one accurate navigational course and enabled us to swing off on to the proper course for Tokyo. This was considered necessary and desirable due to the possibility of change in compass calibration, particularly on those ships that were located close to the island.

All pilots were given selected objectives, consisting of steel works, oil refineries, oil tank farms, ammunition dumps, dock yards, munitions plants, airplane factories, etc. They were also given secondary targets in case it was impossible to reach the primary target. In almost every case primary targets were bombed. The damage done far exceeded our most optimistic expectations. The high degree of damage resulted from the highly inflammable nature of Japanese construction, the low altitude from which the bombing was carried out, and the perfectly clear weather over Tokyo, and the careful and continuous study of charts and target areas.

The best information available from Army and Navy intelligence sources indicates that there were some 500 combat planes in Japan and that most of them were concentrated in the Tokyo Bay area. The comparatively few fighters encountered indicated that home defense had been reduced in the interest of making the maximum of planes available in active theaters. The pilots of such planes as remained appeared inexperienced. In some cases they actually did not attack, and in many cases failed to drive the attack home to the maximum extent possible.

The anti-aircraft defense was active but inaccurate. All anti-aircraft bursts were black and apparently small guns of about 37 or 40 mm size. It is presumed that the high speed and low altitude at which we were flying made it impossible for them to train their larger caliber guns on us if such existed. Several of the airplanes were struck by anti-aircraft fragments but none of them was damaged to an extent that impaired their utility of impeded their progress.

The successful bombing of Tokyo indicated that, provided the element of surprise is possible, an extremely successful raid can be carried out at low altitudes with great damage and high security to equipment and personnel.

J.H. DOOLITTLE
Brigadier General, U.S. Army

The full report, detailing the experiences of each of the aircraft taking part can be found at Doolittle Raiders.

Above Tokyo, smoke rises from strikes on the Japanese mainland as the bombs dropped by Doolittle's raiders hit their targets on April 18, 1942. Unable to land the huge aircraft back on the USS Hornet, and running low on fuel, the bombers continued westward attempting to land in a friendly area in China.
Four unidentified Doolittle Raid crewmen, who bailed out over China from Aircraft #14, are escorted in a Chinese village before being reunited with other airmen in April of 1942. Most of the crew members made it to China, either crash landing, or bailing out over land. The assistance given by the Chinese to the airmen spurred the Japanese Imperial Army to carry out a retaliatory action called the Zhejiang-Jiangxi Campaign -- over the course of four months, entire villages were destroyed, and an estimated 250,000 Chinese civilians were killed.