Two weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the American military was set to scratching its collective head by President Roosevelt’s order that we bomb the Japanese home islands immediately. There were no land bases in range, and Navy planes couldn’t carry enough bombs far enough to do the job.
Captain Francis S Low, a brilliant young submariner on Admiral King’s staff, was down at the Norfolk Navy airfield and happened to see some Army B-25s making practice attacks on the painted outline of a carrier. And in a moment of inspiration, it occurred to him to ask whether B-25s could fit on and take off from a carrier deck.
The question was answered just weeks later by another brilliant young officer, Captain Donald Duncan (both these men would finish their Naval careers as Admirals). He examined all the available American bombers and concluded that the B-25 – and only the B-25 – would in fact be able to take off from a carrier deck. But only just. The flight manual lists the take-off distance for a fully-loaded B-25 with a good headwind as 2000 feet. On the deck of the Navy’s newest carrier, the USS Hornet, the B-25 would have just 467 feet to get airborne.
And landing was out of the question. So, with extra fuel tanks fitted and the rear defensive guns replaced with black-painted broomsticks to save weight, sixteen B-25s would take off 500 miles from the Japanese coast, drop 2000 pounds of bombs each on Tokyo, and fly onwards to friendly airbases in China for refueling.
The fascinating story of the Doolittle Raid is not in the B-25’s flight manual, so why am I reading a book that tells you how to check the magnetos during engine warm-up and how much manifold pressure you should pull at minimum cruise?
In short, instead of reading about history, I’m reading history itself. These same pages were studied by the 20-year-old men of America, who often just a few months before had never flown any plane of any sort, and who would shortly be doing some of the most demanding, dangerous and noble work on earth.
Never before were average men made into pilots by the thousands, trained to fly in formations sometimes a mile long and to fight titanic battles five miles above ground. Never before and never again will ten thousand men fight in the air at once: the great air war, a terrible but indelibly romantic thing, is over for good.
The words of wisdom in the pilot’s introduction are striking: know your job, which is half the battle. Know your men – that’s the other half. Do you know where your tail gunner was born? Is your crew chief married? What was your navigator doing before he joined the Army? And so forth.
This is an extraordinary document, one of a great many small but elegant building blocks that made grander and better-known documents possible – that validated the phrase “unconditional surrender”.
So why should I want to know how much manifold pressure to pull at minimum cruise in a B-25? I think everyone should. It’s 27 inches at 2000 rpm.
Freestanding Importance: 2/10
Representative Importance: 9/10
Interestingness and fascinatingness: 10/10
Overall Goodness Rating: Honestly, if you love machines it’s a 9/10. Everyone else, grab a history book instead.
Pilot Training Manual for the B-25, by Headquarters, AAF, Office of Flying Safety. This revision, November 1944. 171 pages.