WWII air veterans of Doolittle Raiders celebrate 71 years of bombing civilians
I read 30 Seconds Over Tokyo when I was still a war-playing kid, before I would understand the mischievous consequences of the Doolittle Raiders B-25 bombers deploying without their bombsights. This was to prevent US war-making advantages falling into enemy hands but it also precluded dropping bombs with accuracy. I’m pretty certain the account for young readers also didn’t explain why over a quarter of the squadron’s bombs were of the incidiary cluster variety. Readers today know what those are for. Doolittle claimed to be targeting military sites in Japan’s capitol, but “invariably” hit civilian areas including four schools and a hospital. Of the American fliers captured, three were tried and executed by the despicable “Japs”, who considered the straffing of civilians to be war crimes. After the war, the US judged the Japanese officers responsible, as if their verdict was a greater injustice against our aviators’ “honest errors”. Today we rationalize our systemic overshoot policy as “collateral damage”.
Every year since WWII, Doolittle’s commandos are feted for their milestone bombing mission. This Veterans Day is to be the last due to their advanced ages. But it is fitting, because isn’t it time Americans faced what we’re celebrating? There’s no denying it took suicidal daring, but the Doolittle Raid inaugurated what became a staple of US warfare, the wholesale terrorizing of civilians from on high, with impunity and indifference. To be fair, the American public has always been kept in the dark. American aircraft have fire-bombed civilians at every diplomatic opportunity since 1942, and a Private Manning sits in the brig for trying to give us a chance to object.
We now know that the Doolittle Raid didn’t turn the tide, nor shake Japanese resolve. It was a retalliation for the attack on Pearl Harbor, intended to boost US morale as if to say, America wasn’t defeated. Kinda like why and how we struck back at Afghanistan after 9/11, just as indiscriminately.
The “Mark Twain” ersatz bombsight
The Norden bombsight was a closely guarded US secret weapon. An airstrike without it would today be like lobotomizing so-called smart bombs, and deciding to opt for imprecision bombing. The official army record recounts that a subsitute sighting mechanism was improvised for the raid, dubbed the “Mark Twain” and judged to be effective enough. Now a bad joke. Indochina and Wikileaks-wisened, we know the mendacity of that assessment. The vehemently anti-imperialist, anti-racist Twain would not have been honored.
Twain satirized Western so-called Enlightenment thus: “good to fire villages with, upon occasion”.
Post-postwar hagiographies of the raid have suggested the improvised bombsight was better suited to low-altitude missions than the Norden model. That conclusion is easily dismissed because the device was used only for the Doolittle run and never after. The sight’s designer, mission aviator C. Ross Greening, offered a explanation for why he named the device after Mark Twain in his pothumously published memoir Not As Briefed. He didn’t.
The bombsight is named the “Mark Twain” in reference to the “lead line” depth finder used on the Mississippi River paddle wheelers in bygone days.
Because its design was so simple, we’re left to suppose. Greening’s bombsight was named for the same “mark” which Samuel Langhorne Clemens adopted as his celebrated pen name. I find it disingeneous to pretend to repurpose an archaic expression whose meaning was already eclipsed by the household name of America’s most outspoken anti-imperialist. Who would believe you named your dog “Napoleon” after a French pastry?
We are given another glimpse into Greening’s sense of humor by how he named his plane, the “Hari-Kari-er” ready to deal death by bomb-induced suicide. Greening’s B-25 is the one pictured above, with the angelic tart holding a bomb aloft. Greening’s plane was another that carried only incendiary ordnance.
Much was made of the sight’s two-piece aluminum construction, reportedly costing 20 cents at the time compared to the $10,000 Norden. This provided the jingoist homefront the smug satisfaction perhaps, combining a frugality born of the Depression with the American tradition of racism, that only pennies were expensed and or risked on Japanese lives.
Targeting civilians, taking insufficient care to avoid civilian casualties, using disproportunate force, acts of wanton retaliation, and the use of collective punishment are all prohibited by international convention. They are war crimes for which the US prosecutes adversaries but with which our own military refuses to abide. Americans make much of terrorism, yet remain blind to state terrorism. Doolittle’s historic raid, judged by the objective against which it is celebrated as a success, was an act of deliberate terrorism.
Forcing the Japanese to deploy more of their military assets to protect the mainland sounds like a legitimate strategy, except not by targeting civilians to illustrate the vulnerability, nor by terrorizing the population, one of Doolittle’s stated aims. He called it a “fear complex”.
It was hoped that the damage done would be both material and psychological. Material damage was to be the destruction of specific targets with ensuing confusion and retardation of production. The psychological results, it was hoped, would be the recalling of combat equipment from other theaters for home defense, the development of a fear complex in Japan, improved relationships with our Allies, and a favorable reaction in the American people.
There is no defending Japan’s imperialist expansion in the Pacific, and certainly not its own inhumanity. The Japanese treated fellow Asians with the same racist disregard with which we dispatched Filipinos. While Americans point in horror at how the Japanese retalliated against the Chinese population for the Doolittle Raid, we ignore that Doolittle purposely obscured from where our bombers were launched, leaving China’s coast as the only probably suspect.
To be fair, most of Doolittle’s team was kept in the dark about the mission until they were already deployed. I hardly want to detract from the courage they showed to undertake a project that seemed virtually suicidal. But how long should all of us remain in the dark about the true character of the Doolittle Raid?
Out of deference for the earlier generation of WWII veterans, those in leadership, certain intelligence secrets were kept until thirty years after the war. Unveiled, they paint a very different picture of what transpired. The fact that the US knew the German and Japanese codes from early on revealed an imbalance not previously admitted, as an example.
About the Doolittle Raid, much is already openly documented, if not widely known. The impetus for the raid was public knowledge, the evidence of its intent in full view.
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, American newspapers were already touting offers of cash rewards for whoever would be the first to strike back at Japan. President Roosevelt expressed a deliberate interest in hitting the Japanese mainland, in particular Tokyo, to retaliate for the Japanese strike against Pearl Harbor, never mind it had been a solely military target.
Plans were made to exploit the Japanese homeland’s vulnerability to fire, as ninety percent of urban structures were made of paper and wood. Writes historian William Bruce Jenson:
In his “confidential” meeting with reporters back in November, Marshall had declared that the US would have no cavil about burning Japan’s paper cities.
For the Doolittle Raid, a bombing strategy was developed to overwhelm the fire department of his target, the Shiba ward.
A former naval attache in Tokyo told Doolittle: “I know that Tokyp fire department very well. Seven big scattered fires would be too much for it to cope with.”
As lead plane, Doolittle’s role was to literally blaze the way. Fellow pilot Richard Joyce told Nebraska History Magazine in 1995:
The lead airplane, which was going to have Doolittle on board as the airplane commander, was going to be loaded with nothing but incendiaries -2.2 pound thermite incendiaries- in clusters. They drop these big clusters and then the straps break and they spray, so they set a whole bunch of fires. He was to be the pathfinder and set a whole bunch of fires in Tokyo for pathfinding purposes.
Doolittle’s report outlined his objective more formally:
one plane was to take off ahead of the others, arrive over Tokyo at dusk and fire the most inflammable part of the city with incendiary bombs. This minimized the overall hazard and assured that the target would be lighted up for following airplanes.
Greening paints the most vivid picture, of burning the Japanese paper houses to light the way:
Doolittle planned to leave a couple of hours early, and in the dark set fire to Tokyo’s Shiba ward … the mission’s basic tactic had been that Doolittle would proceed alone and bomb a flammable section of Tokyo, creating a beacon in the night to help guide following planes to their targets.
Doolittle’s copilot Lt Richard Cole, told this to interviews in 1957:
Since we had a load of incendiaries, our target was the populated areas of the west and northwest parts of Tokyo.
After the bombers had left on their raid, and before news got back about whether or not they accomplished it, the Navy crew on the carrier USS Hornet already sang this song, which went in part:
Little did Hiro think that night
The skies above Tokyo would be alight
With the fires that Jimmy started in Tokyo’s dives
To guide to their targets the B-25s.
When all of a sudden from out of the skies
Came a basket of eggs for the little slant eyes
Most of the bombers were loaded with three demolition bombs and an incendiary cluster bomb. Some of the planes carried only incendiaries. According to Doolittle’s official report of the raid, here were some of their stated objectives:
Plane no. 40-2270, piloted by Lt. Robert Gray:
thickly populated small factories district. … Fourth scattered incendiary over the correct area
Plane No. 40-2250, Lt. Richard Joyce:
Incendiary cluster dropped over thickly populated and dense industrial residential sector immediately inshore from primary target. (Shiba Ward)
“The third dem. bomb and the incendiary were dropped in the heavy industrial and residential section in the Shiba Ward 1/4 of a mile in shore from the bay and my tat.”
Aircraft 40-2303, Lt Harold Watson:
the congested industrial districts near the railroad station south of the Imperial Palace
AC 40-2283, David Jones:
the congested area Southeast of the Imperial Palace
Even though the planned night raid became a daytime mission, Doolittle did not alter his original role, intended to light the way for the following planes. His target remained the Shiba District of Tokyo. His own plane: “changed course to the southwest and incendiary-bombed highly inflammable section.”
Doolittle’s report included a description of the incendiary bombs:
The Chemical Warfare Service provided special 500 incendiary clusters each containing 128 incendiary bombs. These clusters were developed at the Edgewood Arsenal and test dropped by the Air Corps test group at Aberdeen. Several tests were carried on to assure their proper functioning and to determine the dropping angle and dispersion. Experimental work on and production of these clusters was carried on most efficiently.
As has become an aerial bombardment tradition, crews were let to inscribe messages on the bombs about to be dropped. Accounts made the most of these chestnuts: “You’ll get a BANG out of this.” And “I don’t want to set the world on fire –only Tokyo.”
These details, which reveal the intentions of the raid, were not made known to the public immediately. The Doolittle Raid was planned and executed in secret, with US government and military spokesmen denying knowledge of the operation even in its aftermath. The first word to reach the American public came from the New York Times, citing Japanese sources:
Enemy bombers appeared over Tokyo for the first time in the current war, inflicting damage on schools and hospitals. Invading planes failed to cause and damage on military establishments, although casualties in the schools and hospitals were as yet unknown. This inhuman attack on these cultural establishments and on residential districts is causing widespread indignation among the populace.
This report was dismissed as propaganda. When Japan declared its intention to charge the airman it had taken captive with war crimes, the US protestations redoubled. The accusations were belittled even as our own reports conceded to the possibilities.
Lieutenant Dawson’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo was the first published account of the raid. Printed less than a year after the event, wartime-sensitive details such as the phony guns made of broomstick handles poking out the back were left out. Targets were also not specified, but a candor remained, probably intended to be threatening. Lawson described the 500-pound incendiaries as “something like the old Russian Molotov Breadbasket”, and related US naval attache Jurika’s advice:
“If you can start seven good fires in Tokyo, they’ll never put them out,” Jurika promised us. … “I wouldn’t worry too much about setting fires in flimsy-looking sections of Tokyo,” he said. “The Japanese have done an amazing job of spreading out some of their industries, instead of concentrating them in large buildings. There’s probably a small machine shop under half of these fragile-looking roofs.”
“Flimsy” became Lawson’s keyword for the residential areas. Here Lawson described dropping his third and fourth bombs, when he saw their corresponding red light indicators:
The third red light flickered, and, since we were now over a flimsy area in the southern part of the city, the fourth light blinked. That was the incendiary, which I knew would separate as soon as it hit the wind and that dozens of small fire bombs would molt from it.
I was satisfied about the steel-smelter and hoped the other bombs had done as well. There was no way of telling, but I was positive that Tokyo could have been damaged that day with a rock.
Our actual bombing operation, from the time the first one went until the dive, consumed not more than thirty seconds.
Thus: Chance of hitting civilian homes: 50/50.
Charges of Excessive Force could be expected, because
blame the victim for being weaker than: a rock.
Care taken to avoid innocent casualties: 30 seconds.
In a later afterword, Lawson blamed Tokyo for having insufficient bomb shelters.
After the war, US occupation forces recovered Japanese records which documented the losses attributed to the Doolittle Raid: fifty dead, 252 wounded, ninety buildings. Besides military or strategic targets, that number included nine electric power buildings, a garment factory, a food storage warehouse, a gas company, two misc factories, six wards of Nagoya 2nd Temporary Army Hospital, six elementary or secondary schools, and “innumerable nonmilitary residences”.
Japan accused the fliers of indescriminate strafing civilians. The US countered that defending fighters were responsible for stray bullets when their gunfire missed the bombers. That’s very likely, except the raiders were candid about their strafing too. Lawson:
I nosed down a railroad track on the outskirts of the city and passed a locomotive close enough to see the surprised face of the engineer. As I went by I could have kicked myself for not giving the locomotive’s boiler a burst of our forward 30-calibre guns, then I remembered that we might have better use for the ammunition.
A big yacht loomed up ahead of us and, figuring it must be armed, I told Thatcher to give it a burst. We went over it, lifted our nose to put the tail down and Thatcher sprayed its deck with our 50-calibre stingers.
Greening’s account of firing on a sailor, raises the moral ambiguity of air warfare with which few airmen grapple. By virtue that technology allows it, combatants become slave to a predetermined outcome:
When we attacked the next patrol boat, a Japanese sailor threw his hands up as if to surrender. I guess he expected us to stop and take him prisoner. We shot him and left this boat smoking too.
Friendship Medals exchanged between Japan and the US found themselves requisitioned for Doolittle’s Raid:
Several years prior to the war, medals of friendship and good relationship were awarded to several people of the United States by the Japanese government. In substance these medals were symbolic of the friendship and cooperation between the nations and were to represent the duration of this attitude. It was decided by the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Frank Knox, that the time was appropriate to have these medals returned. They had been awarded to Mr. Daniel J. Quigley, Mr. John D. Laurey, Mr. H. Vormstein and Lt. Stephen Jurkis.
After arrangements had been made and the medals secured, a ceremony was held on the deck of the Hornet during which the medals were wired to a 500 lb. bomb to be carried by Lt. Ted Lawson and returned to the Japanese government in an appropriate fashion.
Lawson’s plane no 40-2261 dropped that bomb on an “industrial section of Tokyo” omitting to mention that Japan’s industry was still a post-feudal cottage industry.
Tags: Air Force, Airstrikes, Doolittle Raid, Mark Twain, Norden Bombsight, Shiba Ward, Veteran's Day, War Crime, World War II
“The medals were subsequently delivered in small pieces to their donors in Tokyo by Lt. Ted Lawson at about noon, Saturday, April 18, 1942.”
–Mitscher, M.A. Letter Report to Commander Pacific Fleet.
“Through the courtesy of the War Department your Japanese medal and similar medals, turned in for shipment, were returned to His Royal Highness, The Emperor of Japan on April 18, 1942.”
–Knox, F. Letter Report to Mr. H. Vormstein