The 2001 epic war film, Pearl Harbor, portrays the days leading up to Pearl Harbor, the attack itself, the immediate aftermath, and the response of America in her first few months into World War Two, culminating in the bombing of Japan by Doolittle’s Raiders.
At the risk of oversimplifying, Japan’s sweeping conquest of the Pacific was all but conclusive until they failed in at least two major objectives in the attack on Pearl Harbor. While America suffered terrible losses in life and among her battleships, the failure of Japan to finish off the numerous fuel reserves stored nearby and, even more consequential, to catch the United States’ Aircraft carriers at anchor in Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941 were blunders that would soon prove catastrophic.
Accordingly, six months after Pearl Harbor, on May 4-8, 1942, America essentially fought Japan to a draw in the first ever battle between aircraft carriers, each sinking one carrier of the other’s fleet. One month later, in the Battle of Midway, America won a decisive victory, sinking four Japanese carriers against only one carrier lost. Even more significantly, Japan had 248 aircraft destroyed and over 3,000 killed, many of whom were their most seasoned pilots.
From that day forward, barely seven months after Pearl Harbor, Japan was on the defensive as America began an island hopping campaign across the Pacific that eventually reclaimed all the territory Japan had conquered and ultimately led to the defeat of Japan and the occupation of her home islands.
But what I want to refer to here is the significance of leadership as displayed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in America’s darkest hour. In the months immediately after Pearl Harbor, he knew that his fellow Americans were struggling with fear, doubt, and the specter of defeat. As a leader, he understood that it was his job to find a way to inspire them.
And for this reason, he set his cabinet the task of finding some way to retaliate against Japan and give the American people the all-important boost in morale that they so desperately needed.
The result was a surprise raid in April, 1942, led by Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and consisting of Sixteen B-25B Mitchell medium range bombers that were launched without fighter escort from the U.S. Navy's aircraft carrier USS Hornet deep in the Western Pacific Ocean.
The bold plan called for flying over Japan, dropping bombs on major targets, and then flying on to China before eventually landing in non-Japanese occupied territory. Unfortunately, the US Fleet was sighted and the bombers had to be launched at a far greater distance than anticipated, thus limiting fuel supply.
Many planes finished the mission with little or no fuel, with most crashing far short of their desired landing spots and into Japanese occupied territory. After many harrowing experiences, all but three of the eighty crew members survived and eventually made it back home.
While the mission inflicted very little actual military destruction itself, the damage to Japanese psyche due to an attack on the homeland they had considered impregnable was considerable. More to the point, the effect on America’s morale was tremendous. The Doolittle raid, carried out by brave men, conceived by top brass, and inspired by a true leader was of incalculable significance to the outcome of World War Two.
I conclude by attaching a link to a short, but powerful video clip wherein President Roosevelt dramatically finds a way to inspire his war cabinet to break free from their miasma, galvanizing them to action in the process. What one sees here is leadership at its finest on display. I hope it speaks to you as much as it does me.