The Doolittle Raid: How Important?
Handgrenade of the Month*
John T. Kuehn
In March and April of 1942 Admiral Ernest King, the brilliant but acerbic Commander in Chief of the US Navy (COMINCH) during World War II (as well as the CNO) ,put into execution a plan to use the carrier USS Hornet, newly arrived from the Atlantic Fleet, to launch 16 North American B-25 bombers on a one way trip to bomb Japan in retaliation for Pearl Harbor. Famed aviation pioneer and US Army Air Force Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle commanded the air component. The overall naval commander for this stunt was Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, embarked on USS Enterprise of TF-16. Thus two valuable aircraft carriers would be tied up for six weeks in total. The raid would also serve, if successfully executed, as a morale boost to the American public mood, which was stunned from the two-ocean setbacks from the Japanese Imperial Navy (IJN) in the Pacific (Singapore had fallen in February) and the German Operation “Drumbeat” by U-boats in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.
For years yours truly ascribed to the idea that this raid achieved not only its planned purposes, but was a critical causal element that led to the Midway operation by the IJN’s premier striking force, Dai Ichi Kido Butai. The argument goes that the humiliation of the Japanese Navy’s promise to protect the Emperor from any US bombers or naval attacks in the sacred home islands belied by this attack convinced key elites in the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War-- composed of Japanese Army and Navy officers –to approve Admiral Isoruku’s proposal to seize Midway Island. Yamamoto’s plan was a gambit to intended to lure the US Pacific Fleet, which had also been raiding from New Guinea to the Gilbert Islands with its carriers, into an ambush as they came out to defend Midway.
However the math does not work. Yamamoto’s original plan had been to actually invade further east, closer to Hawaii, but he finally settled on the Midway plan and his advocacy of this more moderate goal, and his stature as the commander of a Combined Fleet that had delivered nothing but victory since December 7, 1941, convinced the Imperial Naval General staff to agree to his proposal BEFORE the Doolittle Raid occurred.
This fact makes estimating the impact of the Doolittle Raid, which Nimitz believed a rash operation with little payoff, more problematic. Nimitz was concerned that the commitment of half of his available carriers to this operations left his southern flank and developing base structure at risk. One lone carrier task force, under Frank Jack Fletcher (embarked on Yorktown) was left warily watching all by itself in the Coral Sea. USS Lexington, on canned spinach rations for almost a month had left and returned to be re-victualed and rested in Pearl.
What say the naval historians on the H-WAR (or historians in general). Has the Doolittle Raid been over-rated in its importance to the progress of the Pacific War? Was it an unwise gambit that violated Nimitz’s own policy of “calculated risk.”? What else should be factored in, eg. the reputed reinforcement of fighter squadrons for home defense in the home islands of Japan?
John Lundstrom, The First South Pacific Campaign, Pacific Fleet Strategy December 1941 -June 1942 (1976)
________. Black Shoe Carrier Admiral: Frank Jack Fletcher at Coral Sea Midway, and Guadalcanal (2006)
Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway (2005).
*I will be going into this, and many other things, at a lecture at the Dole Center at the University of Kansas sometime at 1500 on 12 September 2019 in a lecture entitled "The Forgotten Admiral: Frank Jack Fletcher."