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A Failure of Trust: Claire Chennault, Jimmy Doolittle, and the April 1942 Bombing of Tokyo

(Note: I wrote this paper for a grad class last Fall. Posting it online now, as I’ve given up on revising it for publication anywhere else!)


On 18 April 1942, little more than four months after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, 16 bombers under the command of US Army Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle bombed Tokyo and nearby cities in Japan. It was a bold and risky mission, planned quickly with men who were inexperienced and aircraft that were untested, and which resulted in an attack so audacious that it shocked both Japan and the United States equally. Later being described as “materially insignificant, but morally important,”1 the raid made headlines around the world, even though the bombing did minimal physical damage to Japan, and achieved few if any strategic military objectives.

Perhaps more surprisingly than the raid itself is the fact that the mission was not led by Claire Chennault, a retired Army Air Forces2 officer living in China. Chennault had been working closely with Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese government since 1937, first to improve the Nationalist Chinese Air Force (CAF), and then to build the American Volunteer Group (AVG), a US-supported military unit in China made up of former American military pilots flying military aircraft supplied by the United States. The US had invested significantly in the AVG, building up an offensive force in Japan’s backyard, yet President Roosevelt and his military leaders ignored that force in the days after Pearl Harbor, and instead turned to Washington, DC-based Doolittle and his risky plan when it came time to strike Japan. The question this paper seeks to answer is this: What role did trust, or a lack of trust, play in the decision to have Jimmy Doolittle lead the 18 April 1942 bombing of Tokyo instead of Claire Chennault?

The conflict between the United States and Japan in the Pacific Theater, including the 1942 bombing of Tokyo by Doolittle and his Raiders, is well covered ground for historians. “General Doolittle’s Report on Japanese Raid,”3 combined with official post-war Government histories including “The United States Army in World War II,”4 provide a solid base of foundational information: The who, what, where, when, and how of the attack on Tokyo. The more nuanced description of events, along with the personal opinions, thoughts, and feelings of the men involved, come from autobiographies of Doolittle’s men, like Ted Lawson,5 and from Doolittle himself.6 Additionally, Doolittle’s co-author, Carroll Glines, has written numerous book-length studies of Doolittle, the Raiders, and the Tokyo mission, examining the event from multiple perspectives.7

In contrast, understanding Chennault and the his time in China is more challenging. As a United States Air Force profile noted, “He has been the subject of a number of biographies – probably more than he deserves.”8 Many of these have failed to take a critical view of the man, puffing up the perception of Chennault the Successful, and downplaying that of Chennault the Challenged. Martha Byrd provides one of the most worthy biographies of Chennault,9 showing him as a success tactically, challenged strategically, and a flawed hero throughout his career. Jack Samson, one of Chennault’s pilots, has also written a strong biography,10 including details from Chennault’s private papers, and Samson’s personal interactions and experiences. Chennault’s autobiography,11 while important to read, is best understood as an attempt to settle scores (and which, as a result, stands in stark contrast to Doolittle’s autobiography, and his warm remarks and balanced assessments).

Dan Ford, author of a biography of Chennault12 has created a robust online archive,13 capturing and hosting materials from the men involved in China with Chennault, allowing scholars to read first-person accounts of their actions, helping to verify or refute some of the wilder claims. Government reports, including Eisel,14 help frame Chennault’s work within a broader historical context of World War II; and journal articles, including Bergin15 and Schaller,16 do a strong job of showing how Chennault’s work advanced the practices of military intelligence and clandestine operations.

What has largely been missing from the academic work to date is an scholarly examination of the decision making process at the senior-most levels of Government in early 1942, and the choice between Chennault’s proposals for China-based bombing of Japan compared to Doolittle’s plan of attack. We know little of what President Roosevelt, General Arnold, Admiral King, or other key decision makers were thinking and feeling when faced with choosing between Chennault and Doolittle, with the exception of one key fact: Jimmy Doolittle was ordered to bomb Tokyo, and Claire Chennault was never given the chance.

This paper proceeds in three parts. First, it provides a history of Chennault, Chiang Kai-shek, and their efforts around building a strong air force in China in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and their proposals to the United States Government for an air war against Japan. Second, it examines the creation of a proposal for a US-based raid on Tokyo in early 1942, the challenges involved in being able to execute the attack, and the role Jimmy Doolittle and his men played in making it a reality. Third, it introduces the concept of “trust,” and the four key elements of competency, compassion, communication, and consistency; and shows how Chiang and Chennault failed to establish a relationship of trust with American leaders in the late 1930s and early 1940s, ultimately costing them the opportunity to bomb Tokyo in 1942.

Claire Chennault in China

Claire Lee Chennault was a talented and stubborn military officer, a man who would be described as “successful against the enemy, [but] not so much with his superiors.”17 Chennault joined the Army in 1917 and received orders to flight school on his fifth request in early 1919.18 A talented pilot, by 1923 he would be in command of the 19th Pursuit Squadron based in Hawaii, where he would find himself succeeding in the cockpit, but struggling on the ground.19 His flying was aggressive and innovative, but caused consternation among senior officers for his repeated failures to follow protocol, and his frequent rule violations during war games.20 Preparing to retire in 1937 due in part to declining health (it is believed he suffered from early onset hearing loss, a frequent ailment plaguing pilots of open cockpit aircraft21), Chennault and his team flew one last public demonstration flight in December 1935, in front of an audience that included CAF General Mow Pang Tsu. Mow was impressed with what he saw, and shortly afterwards, CAF began negotiating with Chennault to come to China to undertake a review of the Chinese military.22 Chennault would be one of many retired military personnel from around the world recruited to China in the 1930s, as the country tried to modernize their military while simultaneously struggling against both internal strife and Japanese aggression.

Doolittle arrived in China in June 1937, less than a month before the Marco Polo Bridge Incident and the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War. At the outbreak of the war, Chennault, in China to simply undertake a review of the CAF, quickly wrote to Chiang and offered to become his chief military air advisor. Chiang accepted immediately. Over his twenty year career in the Army, Doolittle had developed numerous innovative theories about air combat, and he believed that the emerging war would give him a “chance to give them an acid test in combat.”23

Chiang ordered Chennault to Nanchang to take charge of training squadrons of attack aircraft and bombers. The pilots he would command had previously been trained by Italian military advisors hired by Chiang, and the results were abysmal. Many pilots were incapable of flying with any level of skill. Most of the Chinese pilots felt insulted by the expectation that they practice flying, believing that it insinuated that they were not doing a good job. They treated their aircraft (which they often crashed) as being easily replaced.24 Despite Japan’s ongoing, aggressive advance into the Chinese mainland, Chennault would note in his diary that “he did not think the Chinese Air Force was ready for war.”25

Struggling against the abysmal condition of the CAF when he arrived, Doolittle was able to squeak out some early victories. In August 1937, Japan was sending bombers into China without providing them fighter aircraft escorts, leaving them essentially defenseless, but believing that the Chinese did not know how to attack the aircraft (which, until Chennault’s interventions, had been more or less true). Under Doolittle’s direction, CAF fighters learned how to strike back against the unprotected bombers, shooting down more than half of the Japanese aircraft one night. The surprise aggression caused the Japanese to stop their bombing of Nanking for six weeks, saving the lives of countless civilians.26

Still, there was only so much Chennault could do with the men he inherited, who seemed to lack flying skills and the self-awareness necessary to recognize that fact. When the Chinese pilots weren’t being killed by the Japanese, they were killing themselves. From the fall of 1937:

“One clear morning [Madame Chiang] joined Chennault to watch the return of 11 dive bombers. They counted the incoming planes and noted that all had survived the mission, a rare event. The planes circled over the field and prepared to land. The first pilot overshot the runway and crashed in a rice paddy behind it. The second pilot ground-looped and his plane exploded in a fireball. The third landed safely, but the fourth crashed into the fire truck that was speeding toward the burning wreckage of the second plane. Of the 11 dive bombers, none of which had sustained battle damage, 5 crashed on landing and 4 pilots were killed.”27

By October 1937, most of Chennault’s qualified pilots were dead, and about 85% of the fighter aircraft he had when the war started in July were destroyed. Of the dozen bombers he had at his command in Canton, he lost 11 to Japanese fighters in one mission, and the twelfth bomber on the next, shot down by the Japanese seconds after taking off.28 The other 138 bombers under Chennault’s command in China – 150 total – would all meet a similar fate.29

In order to continue taking the aerial fight to the Japanese, the Chinese government established an “International Squadron” under Chennault’s command, comprised of mercenary pilots from France, Holland, Germany, and the United States. These international volunteers flew side-by-side with Chinese pilots, in 30 Vultee bombers the Chinese purchased from American William Pawley, an aviation entrepreneur.30 There were problems from the start. Many Chinese pilots refused to fly under the command of a foreign officer, and many of the foreign pilots were not as qualified as they had sold themselves as being. The result was “the most disorganized mess you ever saw,” according to Tommy Walker, one of the American pilots. “The flying was ragged as hell, and it was just plain dangerous to fly with most of the men.”31 They were careless and lazy on the ground, too. Leaving their aircraft fully loaded with bombs and gasoline one night so as to be able to sleep later the next morning, they created an alluring target for the Japanese. The next morning, the Japanese attacked the air base. A single Japanese bomb struck one of the fully-loaded Vultee bombers, causing an explosion that started a chain reaction down the entire flight line. Within a minute, all the aircraft were destroyed, and the International Squadron along with it.32

Chennault’s efforts to organize the CAF had failed. It was becoming clear that if China wanted to be a launching point for air attacks against the Japanese, they would either need to build a new suitable air force from scratch (a herculean effort), or find an international partner who would base themselves in China, yet operate semi-autonomously to avoid the intercultural conflicts the International Squadron had faced.

By October 1940, Chiang was increasingly worried that Japanese aggression against the Chinese would increase, including potential attempts to seize Singapore or cut off the Burma Road. He proposed to United States Ambassador Nelson Johnson a “fundamental solution:” To use American aid and aircraft to destroy the Japanese navy in their home ports before the Japanese could launch an offensive attack against the Chinese. The United States Government’s response was lukewarm, refusing to commit resources at that time, but promising to continue to study the proposal.33

Chiang and Chennault would continue looking for ways for the United States and China to collaborate militarily. In early November 1940, Chennault, along with CAF Major General Mao Pang-tzo, travelled to the United States, arriving in San Francisco on 14 November.34 In Washington, DC, later that month, Chennault and Mao requested 500 combat aircraft and the necessary pilots and crew to fly them, along with equipment to build 14 airfields and 122 landing strips, and the ammunition and bombs necessary for a year of operation.35 Unlike Chiang’s earlier proposal, this one would be partially accepted by the United States, which agreed to provide 100 P-40B aircraft and the men necessary to fly and support them, leading to the creation of the 1st American Volunteer Group.

In early December, while the United States Government was in the process of final approvals of this request, Chennault and the Chinese delegates put forward a second proposal: Have B-17 bombers, manned by American pilots and crew and operating from Chinese military bases, bomb Japan. This proposal initially received warmer support than the October proposal, including being blessed by Chief of Staff of the Army Marshall, Secretary of State Hull, and Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau. Even President Roosevelt remarked in December 1940 that “it would be a nice thing if China bombed Japan.”36 Unfortunately for the Chinese, this support wasn’t enough to garner approval for the proposal. The War Department, examining the request, noted that the Chinese had already commanded a group of B-10 bombers, but failed in their efforts to successfully use them against the Japanese, neglecting to provide them with fighter aircraft support while on missions, and failing to protect them with antiaircraft support while on the ground.37 This is a clear reference to the 12 bombers under Chennault’s command in Canton, destroyed over the course of two missions. This earlier failure, combined with the logistical difficulties of getting men and equipment to the Chinese airfields within striking distance of Japan, led the War Department to decline to endorse the Chinese proposal.

This was the second time Chiang and Chennault had proposed bombing missions against the Japanese, only to have the American say no. But it is important to note what these discussions represent: By the end of 1940, at the highest levels of the United States Government, there was already consideration and debate around the idea of bombing Japan (both military targets and major cities), and how to launch those attacks from the Chinese mainland.

The following spring, 1941, the idea would come up again for consideration, but not from Chiang or Chennault. Lauchlin Currie, a special assistant to President Roosevelt who had been sent to China earlier that year to assess the condition of the Chinese military, wrote a report stressing the potential value that could come from a robust air force in China being able to defend Singapore, the Burma Road, and the Philippines, and encouraged the United States to provide additional military support to China.38 In addition to playing a defensive role, the report noted that this force could also play an offensive role, since “Kobe, Kyoto, Osaka, as well as Yokohama and Tokyo could be attacked by bombers operating from existing airfields in China.” Currie – an economist by training – also highlighted the ability to strike Japanese industrial complexes and destroy “Japanese factories in order to cripple production of munitions and essential articles for maintenance of economic structure in Japan.”39 Recognizing that the initial amount of support he proposed might be too large to gain approval, Currie drafted a modified version of his proposal, “Short Term Aircraft Program for China,” and sent it on to the Joint Board40 for consideration.41

In July 1941, the Joint Board endorsed the recommendation. The United States would increase its military support to China in the following ways: 269 attack aircraft and 66 bombers would be supplied to enable “effective action against Japanese military and naval forces operating in China and in neighboring countries and waters.” The US would provide men and supplies to equip and train the force, and would also send military advisors to China to improve the performance of the Chinese military.42 The 66 bombers would include 33 Lockheed Hudson models, and an equal number of Douglas aircraft.

Most of the American volunteers would sail from San Francisco in late November 1941, headed first to Australia, and then on to China. The Douglas bombers, unassembled, would be shipped to Africa, assembled, and then sent on to China. The Lockheed Hudson bombers, already assembled, would be flown by the military pilots from San Francisco in early December.

For Chiang and Chennault, the “fundamental solution” would be within reach at the end of 1941. China would finally get the bombers they had started requesting years earlier, and the support of the United States to use them against Japan. Unfortunately for them, while the Americans and their aircraft were headed on a long indirect route to China, the Japanese navy was making a straight line for the United States.

A Date Which Will Live in Infamy

Just before 8:00am on Sunday 07 December 1941, 351 Japanese aircraft launched an attack against United States naval forces stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The United States, which until this time had been at peace with the Japanese (if not plotting otherwise), was caught completely by surprise. Twenty-one naval ships were sunk or damaged, as were 347 aircraft. Two-thousand four-hundred and three people were killed in the attack.43 The nation was shocked.

The next day, President Roosevelt addressed Congress: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941— a date which will live in infamy— the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan…” Four out of every five American homes listened to the seven-minute address live over the radio. A half-hour after completing his remarks, Congress declared war on Japan.44

In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt was vocal about his desire for a quick assault on the Japanese homeland,45 and the American military was eager to fulfill the request. Yet instead of turning to Chennault and leveraging his existing proposals for attacking Japan with China-based forces, the military came up with a new plan, which, while ultimately successful, was exceptionally complicated, full of risk, and involved technologies and tactics never before used.

The men and aircraft that had departed for China in the days before the attack on Pearl Harbor would be diverted and used elsewhere during the war. Chiang and Chennault would never get their bombers.

Doolittle’s Raiders

On the evening of 10 January 1942, Navy Captain Francis Low proposed to Admiral Ernest King that Army bombers could be modified in such a way that they could launch from, and land on, an aircraft carrier at sea. If so, this would enable bombers to be shipped across the Pacific, bomb Tokyo, land on the same aircraft carriers they launched from, and return quickly to the safety of American waters.46

Tokyo and its suburbs offered an alluring target for the United States in early 1942, providing the opportunity to strike not only Japanese military and government buildings, but also centers of industry and commerce that supplied the Japanese war effort and fulfilled the everyday needs of Japanese citizens. An attack on Tokyo would also come with a high degree of risk. Military intelligence believed there were approximately 500 combat aircraft stationed in the Tokyo Bay area.47 The western part of the city was believed to have antiaircraft batteries,48 and east-central Tokyo had barrage balloons.49 Both defensive mechanisms were in place to prevent a bombing raid or other attack on the city.

While uncertain of the feasibility of Low’s proposal, King reacted warmly to the idea, and over the following seven days, a number of senior military officers in the Army and Navy weighed in. Army Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, on the staff of General Hap Arnold, Chief of Staff of the Army Air Forces, was given responsibility to lead the mission.50 It was quickly realized that while launching a bomber from an aircraft carrier was possible, landing that bomber on the aircraft carrier was not. The pilots would have to land somewhere else after their assault. And the only bomber with the potential to meet the technical and logistical requirements of the mission was the B-25 Mitchell bomber, which would need to be heavily modified, and which had yet to be used in combat.51

The modifications to the bombers were largely focused on reducing weight to enable the aircraft to launch from the relatively short 500 foot runway of an aircraft carrier (compared to some military runways, which can be over 5000 feet long), and adding fuel capacity to enable it to fly all the way to Tokyo and then on to a landing site in Asia. Smaller modifications involved changes in radio equipment, and modifications to the bombing sights. Every changed involved weighing costs and benefits. Removing guns from the aircraft reduced weight, but meant the aircraft couldn’t defend themselves. Adding fuel increased the distance the aircraft could fly, but made it harder to take off from the aircraft carrier. Changing bombing sights reduced the chance this critical tool could fall into Japanese hands, but made it harder for the bombers to target their attacks.

The technical challenges were easy compared to the problem of figuring out where to land after the bombing mission. Returning to the aircraft carrier was out; Army bombers weren’t designed to mate with Navy aircraft carrier arresting apparatus, and the risk of hitting the ship’s tower structure was too great due to the broad wingspan of the B-25, which would leave only a 7.5 foot margin of error.52 Landing in either the Soviet Union or China was the obvious alternative. Unfortunately, neither nation agreed. The Soviet Union had signed a neutrality pact with Japan in April 1941, and had little interest in violating it and having an enemy on both their Western and Eastern sides.53 China, likewise, was concerned about Japanese retaliation if they were involved, especially in the coastal areas and Manchuria, where the Japanese had been present for several years. Ultimately, the mission planners decided that the raiders would land in China, against Chiang Kai-shek’s wishes. He would not be informed that the mission was taking place until the aircraft had launched, and it was too late for them to stop.54

Doolittle was realistic about what any bombing mission could accomplish: “The bombs could do only a fraction of the damage the Japanese had inflicted on us at Pearl Harbor, but the primary purpose of the raid we were about to launch against the main island of Japan was psychological.”55 The psychological effect was meant to bolster American spirit after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor and the rapid, early losses in the Pacific (Wake Island, Guam, Bataan, and Corregidor), and to damage the image of the Japanese leadership in the eyes of the Japanese people. “The Japanese people had been told they were invulnerable,” Doolittle would later write. “Their leaders had told them Japan could never be invaded. […] An attack on the Japanese homeland would cause confusion in the minds of the Japanese people and sow doubt about the reliability of their leaders.”56

Once the decision was made in late January 1942 to bomb Tokyo using a fleet of modified B-25 bombers, Doolittle had to move quickly. In late January, he ordered 24 bombers at Wright Airfield in Ohio to be heavily modified, per his peculure and detailed specifications, but without explaining why.57 In a way, he was putting the cart before the horse. It wasn’t until 02 February that two stripped down B-25s were successfully test launched from the USS Hornet off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, proving what had until now only been assumed: That take-off from an aircraft carrier was even possible.58

Aircrews qualified to fly the B-25 were in short supply, but Doolittle located some in Pendleton, Oregon, and asked for volunteers for an “extremely hazardous mission.”59 The volunteers were transferred cross-country to Columbia, North Carolina. At the same time they were moving, Doolittle was shuffling between Minneapolis, Ohio, Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, and Washington, DC, to finish planning and coordinating the mission. His men and aircraft, once assembled in North Carolina, were shipped to Eglin Field in Florida for training, where Doolittle would eventually meet up with them on 03 March 1942.60 Less than three weeks later, on 23 March, they departed for Sacramento, California, arriving three days later.61 The aircraft were loaded onto the Hornet on 01 April, and the ship set to sea the next day. The other ships in the taskforce, which would be led by Admiral Halsey, launched from California and Pearl Harbor over the next several days, all meeting up in the Pacific Ocean north of Hawaii on 13 April, and setting course for Japan.62 It wasn’t until this time that the pilots and crew were finally told where they were going, and what their targets were. Until now, they had been training under a cloak of total secrecy.

Each aircrew was given a set of primary and secondary targets, mostly related to Japanese industry: Steel works, oil refineries, oil tank farms, ammunition dumps, docks yards, munitions plants, and aircraft manufacturing plants were the primary objectives.63

Around 3:00am on the morning of 18 April, the American naval group detected Japanese activity while approximately 650 miles off the coast of Japan. The fleet had intended to get within 500 miles of Japan before initiating the raid, but decided to launch the aircraft early in case the Japanese decided to attack the fleet, or to radio Tokyo to alert them to the inbound ships. The pilots successfully launched from the Hornet – the first time any of them had attempted to launch from an aircraft carrier – and began their flight to Tokyo.

Doolittle knew that there was a risk his aircraft would be intercepted by Japanese forces, but what the crews experienced was a welcome relief. “The comparatively few fighters encountered indicated that home defenses had been reduced in the interest of making the maximum of planes available in active theaters,” Doolittle reported. “The pilots of such planes as remained appeared inexperienced. In some cases they actually did not attack, and in many cases failed to drive the attack home to the maximum extent possible.”64 Indeed, “with their minds on victory, the Japanese had not contemplated the air defense of the homeland, and not a single fighter squadron was devoted to it.”65

Similarly, there were limited defensive forces on the ground: “The anti-aircraft defense was active but inaccurate. […] Several of the airplanes were struck by anti-aircraft fragments but none of them was damaged to an extent that impaired their utility or impeded their progress. Although it was to be assumed that machine gun fire from the ground was active, none of the crew members […] saw any such action nor was there evidence of machine gun fires in the bottom of any of the airplanes.”66 Also lacking was any attempt by the Japanese to camouflage the industrial sites, even though they would be considered obvious military targets.

While the bombing run went smoothly for Doolittle’s raiders, their escape to China did not. They were unable to reach the Chinese airfields via radio, and as such, the chance of any of the crews landing safely was “just about nil.”67 The crews would have to jump from their aircraft and hope to come down safely, in Chinese-controlled lands. Of the sixteen B-25 bombers, six crashed near Chuchow, China; two crashed near Nanching, China; and two crashed near Shangjao, China. Another three were lost at sea: Two near Changchow, China; and one near Wenchu, China. The last aircraft, piloted by Captain York, landed in Primorsky Krai, in the Soviet Union, where the aircraft and crew were interred. Despite the total loss of aircraft, 69 of the 80 men on the mission survived, and managed to get to freedom, mostly in China. Eight men were captured by the Japanese and held as POWs (three would be executed, the rest imprisoned; 1 would die of illness in captivity), two died in aircraft crashes, and a third died under unknown circumstances.68

Reflecting on the raid several months afterwards, Doolittle would attempt to highlight the two-fold objective of the mission: “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 thus effecting relief in those theaters, the development of a fear complex in Japan, improved relationships with our Allies, and a favorable reaction on the American people.”69

While that is true, for Doolittle, the most immediate reaction after the mission was his realization that he had lost all his aircraft. Doolittle speculated that he would be court-martialed and spend the rest of his life in jail, his reputation ruined for the loss of aircraft and life – both precious commodities for the United States in the early days of World War II.70 It wasn’t to be. The raid on Tokyo made headlines around the world. President Roosevelt promoted Doolittle, advancing him from Lieutenant Colonel to Brigadier General, skipping the rank of Colonel entirely (a very rare, but not unheard of action). Additionally, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for the raid. He would end the war as a Lieutenant General, in command of the Eighth Air Force in Europe.71 A few years before his death in the 1990s, President George H.W. Bush also awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Clearly, Doolittle’s worst fears about his reputation and career in the hours after the raid never materialized.

A Cascading Failure of Trust

In January 1942, the shock of the attack on Pearl Harbor turned into a feeling of determination to strike back against Japan. President Roosevelt and senior military leaders had an obvious option right at their fingertips for such an attack. Chiang and Chennault had been proposing for years ways in which the United States and China could collaborate to strike Japan from the Chinese mainland. As recently as six months earlier, the White House’s Currie had documented the offensive opportunities an air force unit in China could provide, and the Joint Board had agreed to ship men, bomber aircraft, and supplies to Chennault. Men and aircraft had already started on their way to China when the Japanese struck Hawaii, and could easily have continued on to their destination, and then to Tokyo.

Yet rather than use these forces, led by Chennault, a man they knew well, based in China and within easy striking distance of Japan, Admiral King and others turned to Doolittle, with his fleet of unproven aircraft, modified in unusual ways, piloted by men who had virtually no experience in their aircraft completing the tasks they would be asked to complete, and all being led by a man with no combat experience. Why? I would argue that by the time of Pearl Harbor, there was a fundamental lack of trust between the United States and China generally, and between U.S. leaders and Chiang and Chennault specifically. This lack of trust was so strong that it dwarfed the exceptional amount of risk and uncertainty that Doolittle’s plan entailed.

Psychologists and organizational behavior experts have argued that there are four key elements critical to the establishment of trust – consistency, compassion, communication, and competency – each of which is “necessary in a trusting relationship, but insufficient in isolation.”72

Consistency emerges through numerous and frequent interactions, is measured in both words and actions, and enables predictability, which reduces threatening feelings, and increases feelings of safety.73 Compassion comes from a belief that individuals care for each other, and will work to protect each other, as well as protect individuals in an “extended web of relations.”74 Communication is the two-way sharing of information, both positive and negative, that leads to the perception of “openness.”75 Lastly, competence in the “execution of an individual’s role responsibilities,”76 comes about through direct viewing of behaviors and actions, and from an awareness of external measures (awards won, rank achieved, etc.).

From the summer of 1937 to the spring of 1942, Chiang and Chennault had given the United States reason to doubt them in each of these four critical areas, damaging if not outright eliminating any feelings of trust.


Chennault’s challenge of being viewed as competent began almost the minute he put on the Army uniform in 1917. Bruce Holloway, who served with Chennault and would eventually rise to the rank of General, described him as “about the poorest loser that I have ever seen.”77 Rejected for flight school, he reapplied four more times until the military granted his request. Once, during a disagreement with a flight instructor during a training flight, Chennault took his hands off the controls and refused to continue flying the aircraft. Without a pilot in control, the plane entered into a dive, and the a view of the ground rapidly began to fill the windshield. The instructor grabbed the controls and saved both their lives with only seconds to spare. Once they landed, Chennault was recommended for discharge, only to have another instructor intervene and keep him in.78

United States Air Force General George Kenney has noted that, “In time of war, the rebel against accepted doctrine who wins is decorated, promoted, and hailed as a great military captain, but in time of peace the nonconformist is looked upon as a troublemaker. He is seldom marked for promotion to higher rank and is generally retired or induced to resign.”79 Unfortunately for Chennault the Rebel, there was no major war while he was in uniform, and he was repeatedly viewed by his peers and the Air Force as being a troublemaker. In addition to an increasingly poor reputation within the small community of military officers in the 1920s and early 1930s, Chennault was also failing to get the external rewards of rank, medals, or commendations. By his retirement in 1937, he had spent 20 years in the military, only to be promoted twice, achieving the rank of Captain.

By contrast, Doolittle joined the military the same year at Chennault, and was a Major by 1940 (one rank higher), and shortly later promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in late 1941.80 In his career to that point, he had advanced the science of instrument flight,81 set aircraft speed records,82 was a member of a national board of inquiry (the Baker Board),83 and had won three major aeronautical trophies: The Schneider, Bendix, and Thompson awards. His achievements – while never coming about during the heat of battle – never the less defined him as a man who knew what to do, and how to do it well. He was friendly and agreeable, well-liked by those he worked with. He was a man who – literally and figuratively – would keep his hands on the controls during flight.


In addition to competency, Chennault also struggled with consistency, both because of his own decisions in life, and because of the state of the CAF when he inherited it in 1937. Chennault was all too happy to leave the Army in 1937, retiring with his full pension in one hand and a $1000 a month contract from Chiang in the other.84 But when he experienced professional difficulties in China, he tried several times to get a new military commission in the United States. In 1939, he reapplied to the Army Air Corps to be a pilot, only to be turned down, being told that there were no funds available to pay him. He tried again in winter 1939/1940 to the same result. In 1940, he wrote to General Arnold, the Air Corps Chief of Staff, requesting reinstatement. Arnold offered him a position in the Coast Artillery School, which he declined. In Washington later that year to meet with the War Department, he made his request again, received the same offer again, and he declined it again. He was gaining a reputation as a man who (rightly or wrongly) left the Army for money, then tried to come running back home when things got difficult for him. 85

Chennault faced similar challenges in the consistency of the performance of the CAF pilots under his command (whose performance ultimately reflected on him as their leader). His men could win one day, only to lose overwhelmingly the next. Their performance was inconsistent; they could successfully bomb targets, only to return home and crash during a straightforward landing. His performance – personally and professionally – was inconsistent, often fluctuated greatly, and raised questions and concerns about his performance, rather than making people feel comfortable with him as a leader and as a person.

Doolittle’s career by contrast had been the single-minded pursuit of the advancement of aeronautics. His successes (including those identified earlier), while not successful victories in combat, were consistent throughout his career, and he was recognized and rewarded for it. Based on the consistent strength of his performance during his career, when the United States went to war against Japan, he was able to request and receive orders to Washington, to support the effort from the top of the War Department. His knowledge of military aeronautics was extensive, and senior military leaders trusted his recommendations and responses to their questions.86 When it came time to select someone to take over the planning of the Tokyo raid, they had no reason to question his performance, or to argue with his involvement or leadership.


It is one thing for political or military leaders to launch a sneak attack against a military target; it’s another entirely to attack a hospital, school, or residential area, overtly or covertly, intentionally or unintentionally. Schaller argues that discussions in 1940 about a potential attack on Japan included the intentional targeting of civilians, and Chennault and Morgenthau, “seem to have given virtually no thought to a Japanese counterattack upon United States territory or forces,” in response to the action, “nor were any moral objections or issues raised by either man.”87 In “The Maverick War,” Schultz additionally notes that they also did not “seem to be concerned about world opinion or the reaction of the American public”88 to such an abhorrent act.

This cavalier attitude about potential bombings establishes two challenges to the perception of compassion. First, that there is no awareness of the moral and ethical issues related to intentionally killing Japanese civilians, even during the brutalities of war. And secondly, failing to recognize that a Japanese counterattack would likely target American civilians, including family members and friends, people who are in that valued “extended web of relations.” Both of these show a lack of compassion, as well as indicating a lack of competence as military professionals, that they did not recognize and consider these issues.

Chennault’s behavior stands in stark contrast to Doolittle, who clearly understood the potential ramification of intentionally or unintentionally bombing non-military targets in Japan. He admonished his men on two occasions: “You are to bomb military targets only. There is nothing that would unite the Japanese nation more than to bomb the emperor’s home. It is not a military target! And you are to avoid hospitals, schools, and other nonmilitary targets.”89 And later, when he heard his pilots were still considering bombing the emperor’s palace: “It’s not worth a plane factory, a shipyard, or an oil refinery, so leave it alone.”90 Doolittle shows additional depth by addressing the topic on two levels: The likelihood of a desire for revenge (emotion) and the reality that an attack on a civilian target would mean one less attack on a military target (logic).


Lastly, there were regular and ongoing challenges with open communication between China and the United States in the 1930s and early 1940s. The United States and China lacked a clear view into each other’s countries, and an understanding of each other’s needs. Roosevelt’s relationship with Chiang was much weaker than his relationship with Churchill (who would also request American support during this period), or even with Stalin. While there were Americans in China, and advocates for China in Washington, there was not an exceptionally close relationship between the two nations. Secondly, the United States, rightly or wrongly, viewed Britain as having more interest in, and responsibility for, China than the United States did. As a result, the United States likely did not push as hard to resolve the communication problems between them and China. As Romanus notes:

“Apart from the Mao program [the aircraft requested and approved in November/December 1940], Washington has little specific, itemized information as to what China’s overall needs were, for Soong’s staff had offered only vague generalities. The British, on the other hand, had presented concrete programs on which the estimate of the first lend-lease appropriation was based. A second reason lay in the fact that, though the War Department wanted Japan to be contained in China, the British Commonwealth with its vast holdings in the Orient was considered to have a predominant interest in maintaining China as a belligerent. The Commonwealth would have received U.S. approval of any reasonable program of transfers to China.”91

These challenges weren’t limited to military equipment. Similar challenges arose in China’s requests for engineering and medical supplies, which were made in “general statements… to be followed by detailed information as soon as possible” according to War Department reports, a level of “vagueness and unreality” that led the War Department to view Chinese requests unfavorably.92


There are four elements critical to the existence of trust, and Chiang and Chennault had failed in each of them as individuals, as military leaders, and as representative of the nation of China. Their inability to establish trust with the United States doomed their requests for bombers and military support in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and ensured that when the United States finally decided to bomb Tokyo in early 1942, the nation would turn to someone else to lead the effort.

The 18 April 1942 raid on Tokyo was ultimately a success, but it could just as easily have been a complete failure: The fleet could have been spotted and attacked by Japan during their long voyage across the Pacific; the pilots could have crashed trying to take off from an aircraft carrier; Japanese aircraft or antiaircraft weapons could have destroyed the unprotected bombers; their improvised bomb sights could have failed when used in combat; and any of the hundreds of other improvised or newly-created parts could have failed during the assault. President Roosevelt and the military leadership accepted a huge amount of risk and uncertainty in endorsing Doolittle’s mission to bomb Tokyo, all because of a cascading failure of trust in their partners in China, who they had been working with for years.

1Max Hastings, All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945 (London: HarperPress, 2011): 237.
2The United States Air Force would not come into existence as a separate military branch until 1947. Until 1947, military aircraft would belong to the United States Navy and to the United States Army Air Forces, a component of the United States Army.
3United States Department of War, Halsey-Doolittle Raid, April 1942 (Washington, DC: Department of War, 1942).
4Romanus, Charles, and Riley Sunderland, United States Army in World War II: China-Burma-India Theater: Stilwell’s Mission to China (Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1952).
5Lawson, Ted, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (New York: Random House, 1943).
6Doolittle, James, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again (New York: Bantam, 1991).
7Glines, Carroll, Doolittle’s Tokyo Raiders (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1981). Glines, Carroll, Four Came Home: The Gripping Story of the Survivors of Jimmy Doolittle’s Two Lost Crews (Missoula, MT: Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., 1996). Glines, Carroll, Jimmy Doolittle: Daredevil Aviator and Scientist (New York: Macmillan, 1972). Glines, Carroll, Master of the Calculated Risk: James H. ‘Jimmy’ Doolittle, A Pictorial Biography (Missoula, MT: Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., 2002). Glines, Carroll, The Doolittle Raid: America’s Daring First Strike Against Japan (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 2000).
8“Claire Chennault,” American Airpower Biography.
9Byrd, Martha, Chennault: Giving Wings to the Tiger (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1987).
10Samson, Jack, The Flying Tigers (New York: Doubleday, 1987).
11Chennault, Claire, Way of a Fighter: The Memoirs of Claire Lee Chennault (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1949).
12Ford, Daniel, Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and His American Volunteers, 1941-1942 (New York: Harper Collins, 2007).
13Ford, Daniel, “Annals of the Flying Tigers.”
14Eisel, Braxton, “The Flying Tigers: Chennault’s American Volunteer Group in China,” Air Force Sixtieth Anniversary (2009): 1-36.
15Bergin, Bob, “Claire Lee Chennault and the Problem of Intelligence in China,” Studies in Intelligence, vol. 54, no. 2 (June 2010): 1-10.
16Schaller, Michael, “American Air Strategy in China, 1939 – 1941: The Origins of Clandestine Air War,” American Quarterly, vol. 28, no.1 (Spring 1976): 3-19.
17Eisel, “The Flying Tigers:” 1.
18Eisel, “The Flying Tigers:” 2.
19Eisel, “The Flying Tigers:” 3.
20Eisel, “The Flying Tigers:” 3-5.
21Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 212.
22Eisel, “The Flying Tigers:” 5.
23Duane Schultz, The Maverick War: Chennault and the Flying Tigers (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987): 57.
24Schultz, The Maverick War: 57.
25Schultz, The Maverick War: 58.
26Schultz, The Maverick War: 62-63.
27Schultz, The Maverick War: 67.
28Schultz, The Maverick War: 67.
29Schultz, The Maverick War: 72.
30Schultz, The Maverick War: 72.
31Schultz, The Maverick War: 73.
32Schultz, The Maverick War: 73.
33Romanus and Sunderland, US Army in WW2: 9.
34Romanus and Sunderland, US Army in WW2: 10.
35Romanus and Sunderland, US Army in WW2: 10-11.
36Alan Armstrong, Preemptive Strike: The Secret Plan That Would Have Prevented The Attack on Pearl Harbor (Guilford, CT: The Lyon Press, 2006): 31.
37Romanus and Sunderland, US Army in WW2: 12-13.
38Schaller, “American Air Strategy in China:” 14.
39Schaller, “American Air Strategy in China:” 15.
40Predecessor to today’s Joint Chiefs of Staff
41Schaller, “American Air Strategy in China:” 16.
42Joint Board Paper 355 (Ser 691), quoted in Romanus and Sunderland, US Army in WW2: 24.
43”Overview of The Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941,” Naval History and Heritage.
44”FDR’s ‘Day of Infamy’ Speech: Crafting a Call to Arms,” Our Heritage in Documents, vol. 33, no. 4 (Winter 2001).
45Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 213-214.
46Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 216-218.
47Department of War, Halsey-Doolittle Raid, April 1942
48Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 7.
49Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 8.
50It wasn’t until two months later, in March 1942, that he requested and received the additional order to fly the mission, in addition to simply overseeing it’s planning and execution. See Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 230.
51Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 212, 217.
52Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 212.
53Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 3.
54Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 7.
55Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 1.
56Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 1.
57Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 222.
58Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 220-221.
59Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 224.
60Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 225-226.
61Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 231, 233.
62Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 238.
63Department of War, Halsey-Doolittle Raid, April 1942
64Department of War, Halsey-Doolittle Raid, April 1942
65Anthony Bruce and William Cogar. “Raid on Tokyo, 1942.” Encyclopedia of Naval History (New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1997).
66Department of War, Halsey-Doolittle Raid, April 1942
67Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 9.
68Department of War, Halsey-Doolittle Raid, April 1942
69Department of War, Halsey-Doolittle Raid, April 1942
70Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 11.
71Department of War, Halsey-Doolittle Raid, April 1942
72Devon Vodicka, The Four Elements of Trust, Principal Leadership, vol. 7, no. 3 (November 2006).
73Vodicka, Four Elements of Trust: 29.
74Vodicka, Four Elements of Trust: 29.
75Vodicka, Four Elements of Trust: 29.
76Vodicka, Four Elements of Trust: 30.
77Schultz, The Maverick War: 17.
78Schultz, The Maverick War: 27-28.
79Schultz, The Maverick War: Frontpiece.
80Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 210.
81Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 120-141.
82Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 99.
83Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 183-185.
84$1,000 in 1937 would be worth approximately $16,500 in 2013.
85Schultz, The Maverick War: 73-74
86Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 210
87Schaller, “American Air Strategy in China:” 11.
88Schultz, The Maverick War: 4.
89Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 246.
90Doolittle, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: 247.
91Romanus and Sunderland, US Army in WW2: 13.
92War Department reports, quoted in Romanus and Sunderland, US Army in WW2: 15.

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