From Shangri-La to Tokyo

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Seventy years ago 80 very brave Americans, led by Army Air Corps Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle, brought the nation a badly needed morale boost.  The War in the Pacific was going badly as defeat followed defeat.  Navy Captain Francis Low hit upon a plan to send a message, not only to the American public, but also to Japan, that the United States was not beaten and that it would strike back and prevail.

16 Mitchell B-25B bombers were placed on the carrier USS Hornet.  In great secrecy the Hornet and its escorts steamed to within 650 nautical miles of Japan when the force was discovered by a Japanese picket boat which was sunk by gunfire from the USS Nashville.  Fearing discovery the Doolittle force launched immediately, some 10 hours earlier than planned, and 170 nautical miles further from Japan.

The raiders reached the Japanese Home Islands at around noon.  They had split up into groups ranging from two to four planes and struck targets in Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe and Osaka.  The raiders then planned to fly their planes into Nationalist controlled China and make their way back to the US.  Miraculously 69 of the raiders did just that.  Three of the raiders died and eight were captured.

Of the captured raiders, three were executed by the Japanese on October 15, 1942 following a show trial.  The remaining five POWs were placed on starvation rations, with one of them dying prior to liberation by the Allied forces at the end of the War.  Jacob DeShazer, one of the POWs, came back to Japan as a missionary in 1948 and worked there for 30 years spreading the Gospel.

The news of the raid electrified the American public.  When FDR was asked where the raid originated he playfully said “Shangri-La!”, the fictional kingdom in the then popular novel Lost Horizons.  The Navy went on to name one of its carriers Shangri-La.

Colonel Doolittle rose to the rank of Lieutenant General during the War and was awarded the Medal of Honor in tribute to the heroism he amply displayed in leading the raid.  The raiders remained a close-knit unit after the War holding annual reunions.  Five of these men, who gave America hope in victory so long ago, are still with us.  May we have such men in the future in our time of need.

7 Responses to From Shangri-La to Tokyo

  • exNOAAman says:

    Nice post.
    I read a more recent book a few years back: The First Heroes by Craig Nelson…not bad really. But, it inspired me to re-read 30 Seconds over Tokyo by Ted Lawson (a rather famous book) which I first read as a 9 year old (plus or minus). The edition I saw had photocopies of telegrams and letters from China regarding the raid. Very interesting. I wonder if newer editions still have this appendix because the Chinese of 1942 were not at all interested in politically correct speech. Especially toward the Japs.
    Oh…I appear to be rambling on…..
    er, read the book…I recommend both.

  • “it also provoked the IJN into its disastrous defeat at Midway.”

    True Dale. It also stunned many Japanese who had bought into the propaganda that Americans were weak and effete and would quickly be beaten or forced to make a compromise peace granting Japan free reign in Asia. The idea that America could so quickly strike the Home Islands was deeply unsettling to perceptive Japanese, like Admiral Yamamoto, who feared from the start that the War would end in utter disaster for Japan.

  • “Very interesting. I wonder if newer editions still have this appendix because the Chinese of 1942 were not at all interested in politically correct speech. Especially toward the Japs.”

    That is still the case with the Chinese. The ones I have talked to always assert that the Chinese like and admire America and despise Japan. Japanese I have talked to return the warm feelings of the Chinese with interest.

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