Only months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, famed pilot James Doolittle leads a top-secret mission to bomb Japan. Richard Cole co-pilots the first of a group of 16 North American B-25 Mitchell bombers that launch from an aircraft carrier--a feat never before achieved in combat. "Chronicles of Courage: Stories of Wartime and Innovation" is a co-production of Vulcan Productions and NBC Learn.
Chronicles of Courage -- The Doolittle Raid
KATE SNOW, reporting:
Japan launches a surprise attack on American forces in Hawaii's Pearl Harbor. The devastating strike thrusts the United States into World War II. Four months later in the rough waves of the Pacific Ocean, an audacious, top-secret mission to bomb Japan is underway aboard the American aircraft carrier USS Hornet. The flight deck buzzes with activity as Lieutenant Dick Cole hurries to his plane.
RICHARD "DICK" COLE (Co-Pilot, U.S. Army Air Forces): When they announced on the PA system, 'army pilots man your planes,' the main object of myself and the rest of the crew was to get there before Colonel Doolittle arrived.
SNOW: "Doolittle" is Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle, a legendary racing pilot and aviation engineer, and commander of this secret mission. Cole is Doolittle's co-pilot.
COLE: We all thought that he was probably the best pilot in the world. It was a very great honor for me to be able to fly with him.
SNOW: American forces lack a base close enough to Japan for a bomber attack, so this risky, one-way mission calls for the bombers to do something daring -- launch from an aircraft carrier and fly hundreds of miles to the targets in Japan, and then hundreds of miles more before landing in China.
Dr. ERIC SHEPPARD (Aerospace Engineer, Hampton University): The idea of flying good-sized bombers off of the aircraft carrier in the enemy territory was really something completely new.
SNOW: To launch successfully, the bombers must carry a 2,000-pound bomb load and hundreds of gallons of fuel for the long flight, yet be light enough to take off in a very short distance. For the mission, Doolittle chooses the rugged North American B-25 Mitchell, a twin-engine bomber capable of flying long-range, but smaller and lighter than other bombers.
SHEPPARD: The question really came down to, can the B-25 pick up enough speed in the distance available before the end of the aircraft carrier in order to take off.
SNOW: A crucial factor for Doolittle and his pilots is what's called a weight to distance ratio. The lighter the plane, the shorter the take-off distance needed. Even ten percent of additional weight could increase the plane's take-off distance by more than 20 percent, and for these pilots, it's the difference between lifting into the air, or crashing into the ocean. Before attempting the risky carrier launch, Cole and the other men train for the mission at Eglin Field in Florida, practicing take-offs in less than 500 feet, the length of a carrier deck, and less than half the distance they previously used. To make the weight limits for take-off, the sturdy B-25s are stripped down to essentials and modified to accommodate the necessary fuel, the 5-man crews, and the bombs.
COLE: Our bomb load was incendiary bombs, and our target was northwest Tokyo, the city, anything that would burn, whether it be houses or factories or anything.
SNOW: On April 18, 1942, the aircraft carrier Hornet cruises toward Japan when Cole and the bomber crews are called to action. Sixteen bombers are readied for launch as 80 courageous airmen prepare to avenge Pearl Harbor.
COLE: The mood was serious. It wasn't worrisome or apprehensive or anything like that. We all realized that, being crew members, we relied on each other.
SNOW: Cole's crew makes the first attempt. After a successful lift-off, one by one, the other planes follow.
COLE: From then on, all the airplanes were on their own.
SNOW: Flying at a low altitude to avoid radar detection and enemy fighters, the Doolittle raiders reach their targets unnoticed.
COLE: We were able to pull up at 1500 feet and drop our bomb.
SNOW: Leaving their Japanese targets in flames, the B-25s head for preset landing sites in China. But low on fuel over enemy-occupied territory, plans change.
COLE: We flew until the fuel warning lights came on, and then at that time Colonel Doolittle said that we're going to have to bail out.
SNOW: The crew jumps from the airplane and parachutes down over China. Cole, Doolittle, and the crew reach the ground safely and evade Japanese capture. With the help of Chinese locals, they return to American bases.
COLE: The purpose of the mission was to give the American people a boost.
SNOW: After their harrowing journey, the Doolittle Raiders are hailed as heroes. With a bold vision and tenacious planning, they stun Japan and help strengthen America's resolve to win the war.
The attack on Pearl Harbor came after years of worsening relations between Japan and the United States. They had differences over Japan's behavior toward China. This breakdown began in 1931, when Japanese army extremists defied their government policy and invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria.
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