Assessing the Strategic Impact of the Doolittle Raid

73 years ago today, sixteen B-25 medium bombers took off from USS Hornet (CV-8) to conduct the first American attack on Japan during World War II. Two weeks after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt asked the Chiefs of Staff to come up with a plan for attacking Tokyo directly in order to demonstrate to the American public that the U.S. was capable of carrying the war to Japan. Captain Francis Low, Assistant Chief of Staff for anti-submarine warfare, is credited with conceiving the idea for the raid. Lieutenant General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, the head of the U.S. Army Air Forces, selected Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle to lead the raid. Doolittle was one of the most experienced military pilots in the country and had already won two Distinguished Flying Crosses.
Model of USS Hornet (click to enlarge)
Builder unknown
Naval War College Museum Collection
Doolittle’s crews received three weeks of specialized training for the mission at Eglin Field and Wagner Field in Florida. Upon completion, they flew to California and met up with Hornet at Naval Air Station (NAS) Alameda. Task Force 18 departed Alameda on April 2 and rendezvoused with Task Force 16, centered on USS Enterprise (CV-6), before proceeding to the western Pacific. The raid launched ahead of schedule on the morning of April 18 after a Japanese patrol boat spotted the American task force. Concerned that they would lose the element of surprise, Doolittle’s men took off and flew the 650 nautical miles to Japan. Their targets included factories, industrial centers, shore facilities, and naval shipyards. After dropping their bombs, each aircraft made its way to friendly territory as best it could. Some made it to China, others crashed in the ocean, and one landed in the Soviet Union.

B-25s on board USS Hornet. Immediately to the left is USS Gwin (DD-433)
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
Historians who have analyzed the raid agree that while it caused little material damage to Japan, it was more important as a boost to American morale. In fact, many articles about the raid quote an official report from the Naval War College that asserted there was “no serious strategical reason” for the raid. What was this report and why was it written?

Anyone familiar with today’s U.S. military knows how much emphasis is placed on conducting and studying after action reviews (AARs). Their purpose is to capture lessons learned in combat so that future commanders can benefit from hard-won experience. In 1946, Chief of Naval Operations FADM Chester W. Nimitz ordered the Naval War College to conduct a series of studies on major World War II naval battles that were essentially in-depth AARs.

ADM Raymond A. Spruance, President of the Naval War College, assigned Commodore Richard W. Bates to conduct these studies. Bates had graduated from the Naval War College senior class in 1941 and returned to teach strategy from 1941-1943. From 1943-1945, he served in a number of combat assignments in the Pacific and was present at the battles of Surigao Strait, Lingayen Gulf, Luzon, and Okinawa. Bates now headed up the project that became known as the World War II Battle Evaluation Group. This group produced studies on the Coral Sea, Midway, Savo Island, as well as a multi-volume report on Leyte Gulf.

RADM Richard W. Bates, USN (Ret.)
Oil on canvas
Anthony Sarro, 1971
Naval War College Museum Collection
Although the Doolittle Raid was not the subject of its own study, Bates discussed it in the introduction to the report on the Battle of the Coral Sea. He noted that the prevailing view of the raid was that it succeeded in bolstering civilian morale even if the material damage caused was slight. He quoted the Office of Naval Intelligence report from 1943 which contained this observation: “Air bombing of Tokyo and the other Japanese centers of war industry on April 18th, while cheering, was only a nuisance raid.” Bates also cited Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King’s assessment that the raid’s most important effect was to lift Allied spirits after the surrender of American and Filipino forces on the Bataan Peninsula.

Recent authors of popular histories about World War II have used Bates’ observation that the raid had “no serious strategical reason” to suggest that the Naval War College found the raid to be of little consequence.[1] However, this interpretation is not supported by the rest of the report. Bates argued that even though the raid was launched without a defined strategic purpose, it actually did have tangible and serious effects on the future course of the war. The raid hit Tokyo while Japanese war planners were meeting to discuss future operations. Up until this point, their armed forces had enjoyed one success after another. The appearance of American bombers over the home islands created enormous pressure to ensure that such an attack was not repeated. As a result, the high command identified a list of new objectives that included the Solomon Islands, Port Moresby, the Aleutians, and Midway Island. They also moved up the timetable for the operation against Midway. This decision ensured that two carriers damaged at Coral Sea, Zuikaku and Shokaku, could not participate, thus depriving the Japanese of about 140 additional aircraft in the crucial battle of the Pacific war. Bates pointed out that the raid had negative strategic consequences for the U.S. as well. The two carriers that participated in the raid, Hornet and Enterprise, returned to Pearl Harbor and were on their way to reinforce USS Lexington (CV-2) and USS Yorktown (CV-5) during the first week of May. They failed to rendezvous in time to take part in the Battle of the Coral Sea, leaving historians to wonder how the American fleet would have fared had it enjoyed a 2:1 advantage in carriers at that action rather than equaling the Japanese force.

The Naval War College is well known for the role it played in formulating U.S. plans for the war against Japan. But the College’s impact on planning did not end once the war started. The World War II Battle Evaluation Group is a good example of how the College analyzed the results of naval operations to determine whether or not strategies conceived in peace time proved sound. In the case of the Doolittle Raid, Bates and his team found that the lack of a specific strategic goal did not stop the attack from having an adverse effect on Japanese decision making, thus aiding the American war effort.

Rob Doane
Curator, Naval War College Museum

[1] See, for example, Mike Wright, What They Didn’t Teach You About World War II (Novato, California: Presidio Press, 1998), 277; James Arnold and Robert Hargis, US Commanders of World War II (1) (Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2002), 49.


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