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Dare the Impossible – Achieve the Extraordinary.
Vol. 12, No. 3
(626) 791-8973
Copyright © by William A. Cohen 2006, 2015

Rewards Don’t Need to be about Money*

In the spring of 1942, the U.S. was still recovering from the shock of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor the previous December. The enemy was winning everywhere. The U.S. did not possess the power to strike back effectively, in fact; America was fighting hard, mostly unsuccessfully, to stem Japanese advances throughout the Pacific. Morale in the U.S. was at an all-time low.

It was at this time that a U.S. Navy submariner by the name of Captain Francis Lowe proposed an unusual plan. He suggested that Army Air Force twin-engine medium bomber aircraft be launched from an aircraft carrier to attack the Japanese capital of Tokyo and other major Japanese cities. Of course the number of bombers that a single aircraft carrier could transport would be limited. In fact, only 16 eventually participated in the raid. They could not make a significant impact on the military and industrial targets attacked. It would be a pinprick. However, it would be an important pinprick. The mere fact that the U.S. could attack the enemy home islands and its capital would result in a much-needed boost in American morale and fighting spirit. Senior commanders agreed that this concept was feasible, and with the approval of President Roosevelt, proceeded to plan the mission.

The job of commanding the bombers was given to James H. (Jimmy) Doolittle who had a tremendous reputation as a pilot. He was the first to cross the United States in less than twenty-four hours, the first to perform an outside loop, and the first pilot to take-off, fly, and land an airplane using instruments alone, without being able to see outside the cockpit. He had also won the three major racing trophies: the Schneider Cup race in 1925, the Bendix Trophy in 1931, and the Thompson Trophy in 1932. He had even held the world speed record at one time. Yet with all this, he was one of the very few U.S. Army officers to possess a doctorate in aeronautical engineering. He had left active duty to work for Shell Oil Company, but he had retained a reserve commission in the Army Air Corps. As war approached, he requested a return to active duty and by 1942 was a lieutenant colonel.

Tolerances for this mission were very close. Though it was theoretically possible to fly a heavily leaden B-25 bomber from an aircraft carrier, it had never been done before. The crews were all volunteers. They didn’t even know exactly what they were volunteering for, except that it would be very dangerous. The aircrews practiced daily making extremely short take-offs from a specially marked runway. When Doolittle determined that they were ready, their aircraft were loaded on the aircraft carrier Hornet with great secrecy. The attack task force departed on the mission with equal secrecy. Even the carrier’s commander, Captain Marc Mitscher didn’t know what they were up to until they were out to sea.

The plan called for the carrier to get the attack force within 400 hundred miles of the Japanese coastline. With little margin for error, they had just enough fuel to carry out their mission and reach their recovery bases in China. However enemy picket boats sighted the carrier and its escort vessels while they were still more than 200 miles from where they were supposed to take off.

The task force commander, Vice Admiral William F. Halsey made the decision to launch the bombers immediately. Additional cans of fuel were distributed to each crew and carried in each aircraft. However, every man knew that to arrive at the bases in China originally intended would be next to impossible. With a final message, Halsey ordered the planes off.

Doolittle couldn’t promise his men much — certainly not money or promotion. There was no rule about spending his own money to reward to whom so ever he pleased. So Doolittle promised to throw his fliers “the biggest party they had ever seen” after the mission.

Doolittle’s airplane was the first to take off, and the other aircraft followed. Every single warplane successful reached and bombed its target in Japan. Due to lack of fuel and bad weather, none reached their planned post-strike air fields, but through Chinese help, most escaped capture.

While intended primarily as a morale booster, the mission had important strategic consequences. The Japanese high command, alarmed that the Americans had been able to attack their major cities, withdrew significant fighter forces from the fighting fronts for home island defense. The psychological effect on both sides was considerable. The raid raised American morale, but even more importantly, it had a decided negative impact on morale in Japan, since heretofore undefeated, Japanese forces were felt to be invincible.

Doolittle kept his promise and rewarded his fliers with a major celebration party when they returned. All participants were decorated for heroism, and many were promoted. Several eventually reached high rank. Doolittle was not only awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, but was bumped up over many others to the rank of brigadier general, skipping the grade of full colonel. Before his death at the age of 96, he was the only reserve officer who was ever awarded the four stars of a full general. Doolittle and his command were stunningly effective, and they were rewarded effectively in turn, but not with money.

*Adapted from William A. Cohen (Secrets of Special Ops Leadership: AMACOM, 2006)


“If love of money were the mainspring of all American actions, the officer corps long since would have disintegrated.” – Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall


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