Archive for April 18th, 2009

On April 18, 1942, Hideki Tojo was doing what millions of people today do on a regular basis…flying in an airplane.  Sitting in a belly of a plane was nothing new to this career military man, but sitting in one while bearing the title of Japanese Prime Minister was.  Tojo had been named to the exalted position (though still below the “divine” seat of Emperor) in October of 1941, but still maintained his title of Army minister.

That meant continuing to carry out all the duties required by his military position as well, such as inspecting military bases.  And that’s what Tojo had been doing prior to climbing into the plane he now occupied.

Suddenly, the plane veered violently, rousing Tojo from his thoughts in a moment of panic.  Looking out his window, he was shocked to see another plane so close to his.  Even more surprising was the fact that plane didn’t even look Japanese.  In fact, the brown plane looked decidedly American, a suspicion which was confirmed by his equally-shaken pilot, who told Tojo it was a North American B-25 Mitchell…a medium bomber.

The Prime Minister had nearly collided with a member of one of the most famous air raids of all time…Colonel James Doolittle’s raid on Japan.  The Mitchell took no shots during its close encounter, but as one of 16 B-25’s launched from the USS Hornet, would go on to drop bombs on mainland Japan.

Little damage was done by Doolittle’s raid, but the consequences were immense.  The announcement of raid in the United States was a huge boost of confidence in a war-time spring largely bereft of good news.  In addition, business at hundreds of Shangri-La hotels around the country probably saw a boom in business since, according to President Roosevelt, it’s from where the raid had originated.

But more important were the Japanese military responses to the attack.  They correctly deduced that the planes had somehow launched from an aircraft carrier.  They also knew that the U.S. Navy had but four carriers in the Pacific, one of which (the USS Lexington) was sitting at Pearl Harbor.  Guessing (again, correctly) that two carriers (Hornet and USS Enterprise) were used in the raid, they concluded that just one carrier, the USS Yorktown, was protecting the approaches to Port Moresby, one of Japan’s next targets.  A fifth carrier, USS Saratoga, was at Bremerton undergoing repairs from a January torpedo strike.

So Japan altered their plans, reducing the Port Moresby attack force to a pair of large carriers and a light carrier, while strengthening the force delegated to Midway Island.  The reduced forces would ultimately run afoul of the Americans in the Battle of the Coral Sea, the results of which would have dire consequences in the Battle of Midway.

The Doolittle raid achieved very little in the way of tactical successes.  But like a small leak in a dam that slowly grows, Doolittle’s Mitchells started a leak in Japanese thinking that would lead to catastrophe over the next two months.

Read Full Post »