The B-25 Mitchell Bomber was made famous by the daring Doolittle raid on Tokyo a few months after Pearl Harbor was attacked. A medium bomber, the B-25 was not a carrier plane, but sixteen B-25s took off from the USS Hornet, with Col. Jimmy Doolittle first, about 800 miles from Japan. They didn’t do much damage, but certainly boosted the morale of the American people.
Named after Gen. Billy Mitchell, the Army Air Corps’ most famous figure of the 1920s–who had even been courtmartialed in 1924 for his fanatical (to military brass) belief in air power.
The first ones were built by North American Aviation in the early 1940s. The Mitchell Bomber, which carried a crew of from four to six, was the first plane to see action in all World War II theaters, and the first over Tokyo.
Dale Wilson first flew the B-25 on January 31, 1943, in Advanced Training at Roswell, New Mexico. He was still hoping to get to fly a fighter plane (or pursuit), but he after graduation, he was assigned to Transition Training in the Mitchell from February to July of 1943. The early bombers had a Plexiglas nose with a single machine gun.
General George Kenney ordered experimenting with skip bombing at “treetop heights: in late 1942. It was more effective than bombing from medium and high altitudes. The bombers used parafrag bombs against most land targets, slowed by parachutes, so the planes could be out of the way before they exploded.
When Dale’s squadron got four new B-25Gs, each with a 75 millimeter cannon in the armor-plated nose, Even Transition Training at Greenville, South Carolina, was done at tree-top level. Dale saw the Atlantic Ocean for the first time when they flew to the coast to fire the plane’s guns.
They flew to the Bahamas–eight continuous hours in the air–a round-robin of 1600 miles, 1100 miles of it over water. “The 70 mm. packs a wallop,” he reported. “I fired three rounds and scored two hits out of three. Incidentally, each round costs a war bond ($18.75).”
General Kenney noted that the Mitchell was effective in skip-bombing but lacked enough forward firing power for low levels. He gave Maj. P. I. “Pappy” Gunn the task to pack as many .50-caliber machine guns as possible into the nose of a B-25. More were mounted in “blister packs” on each side of the fuselage, fired by the pilot’s single trigger. The copilot released bombs.
While Dale Wilson was based in Australia, and in New Guinea for combat, the older bombers were rotated through Australia to be refitted with the extra fire-power.
Assigned to the 5th Air Force, 38th Bomb Group, 823rd Bomb Squadron at 17-Mile Field, Port Moresby, New Guinea, Dale Wilson’s first combat mission was October 21, 1943. He and his crew were lost on his thirteenth off Wewak, New Guinea, November 27.
Ex-B-25-pilots probably all ended up needing hearing aids, as it was one of the noisiest aircraft ever built, but also among the most rugged and durable.
There are several B-25 Mitchells in museums, and a handful are still flying. The one then named the Pacific Prowler, built in 1945, and used in movies (including Catch 22) came to Des Moines in July of 2004 for tours and rides. Husband Guy and I took a very loud ride in it.
“Nothing rumbles to life like a radial, a big one, sputtering and spitting smoke, cylinders coughing as they awake,” we were told. The B-25 has two large very noisy radial engines. “At full takeoff power the racket is felt as much as heard.”
Taxiing it was more difficult than flying it, we learned, and takeoff required the pilot’s full attention. The nose would block his view on landing, but the plane flew straight and level, perfect for a bomber. Takeoff was exciting and loud. We were airborne about half an hour, looping west to the town of Dexter where I grew up. There are no windows in the back, just openings where the gunners would stand. The engines clattered in the heavy wind.
The tires screeched on landing.
The Pacific Prowler was sold to Mid-American Flight Museum in Texas, now called God and Country.
In case you’d like to watch and hear a B-25 take off.
See also: Doolittle’s Tokyo Raiders by Carroll Glines.
The Wilson family story is told in Leora’s Letters, available here. Leora was their mother, and my beloved grandmother.
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