Seventy five years ago today, at noon, five months after Pearl Harbor, the United States took the war to the Japanese home islands and bombed Tokyo in what is still one of the most daring raids in military history. Taking off from the USS Hornet, sixteen B-25 medium bombers — dubbed the Doolittle Raiders — showed the world America would not be cowed.
[…] There were two major consequences of the Doolittle Raid, one gruesome and one strategic. President Roosevelt declared three days after the raid that the bombers had been launched from a secret—and fictional—base in “Shangri-La” rather than aircraft carriers. But when the Japanese discovered that the Chinese had helped the Doolittle fliers, the Japanese wreaked a savage vengeance. The Japanese Army launched an offensive to capture Chinese airfields along the coast: in the process, they unleashed germ warfare and other atrocities, massacring as many as 250,000 civilians, according to Chinese estimates at the time.
It was a horrific price that the Chinese paid, but their sacrifice was not in vain. The humiliation felt by the Japanese was immense: why, the emperor himself could have been killed by those bombs!
What really shamed the Japanese military was the failure to prevent an American carrier task force from sailing close to the homeland. Such an error could not be tolerated. Japan’s original plan for winning the Pacific War had been to seize a huge swath of territory, which would be fortified into a defensive perimeter against which America would futilely butt its head before suing for peace. Yet the threat of bomber attack convinced the Japanese high command to expand the empire’s perimeter by launching an amphibious invasion of the Central Pacific island of Midway. Fearing the loss of Midway and the subsequent threat to Hawaii, the U.S. Navy would then feel compelled to send its aircraft carriers to defend Midway, where they would be destroyed by Japan’s Combined Fleet.
In the event, five aircraft carriers were destroyed at the Battle of Midway. All but one of them belonged to Japan. Loss of their elite and irreplaceable carriers marked the end of Japan’s offensive capability, as well as the turning point of the Pacific War. […]