The Cost of a Propaganda Coup

Today is one of those days in American history where a lot of interesting things happened. It is the start of Paul Revere’s ride, the commencement of the bombardment of New Orleans in 1862.  The SF Earthquake of 1906 happened today, as did the Doolittle Raid, the Yamamoto Assassination, the 1986 naval skirmish between the U.S. and the Libyans. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.

The Doolittle Raid will probably be the most remembered of today’s many anniversaries. On April 18, 1942, sixteen B-25 bombers took off from the USS Hornet and attacked targets in and around Tokyo. The planes flew on to China (one crew made it to Soviet territory), but were all lost in crash landings or the crews bailed out. To the United States populace, starved for any glimmer of good news, the daring raid was a huge lift to national morale. To the Japanese, it was a tremendous shock to discover they were vulnerable to air attack. Their response was to push forward with the Midway plan–and exact revenge on the Chinese.

Most books and articles written about the Raid don’t talk about that latter reaction. Passing mention is made to the fact of the Japanese retribution in China and how most of the airfields the planes were to use were overrun by Imperial Army troops. The truth is that the Chinese paid dearly for America’s propaganda victory.

In the wake of the attacks, Japanese troops destroyed entire cities–one of more than 50,000 people. They killed, raped and tortured hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians before unleashing bacteriological agents created by Unit 731 upon the surviving population.As a result, cholera and other diseases claimed countless others in the wake of the retribution attacks.

So, today, I want to honor those victims and use my little spot on the web to remind all of us that, while China may be an American economic rival now, our histories are interconnected. The loss of the FilAmerican Army on Bataan was keenly felt in America that April. The Doolittle Raid gave us hope that we could strike back and fight what seemed to many an unstoppable Imperial power. And yet, far more died in China as a result than were captured in the Philippines. Those who so courageously helped our aviators once they were on the ground paid a terrible price. One Chinese civilian was tied up, doused with kerosene and his wife was forced to light him on fire.

For freedom and peace to flourish, those who seek to institutionalize cruelty, who seek to justify barbarism with ideology, must be stopped. World War II taught us that only nations who stand together, put aside their differences and their own faults, can stem that terrible tide. It is a lesson that I wish all our world leaders would remember and take to heart.

For further reading, please check out:

And Scott’s brand new book can be found here:

Categories: Allies, World War II in the Pacific | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “The Cost of a Propaganda Coup

  1. Thanks for this post. Much is written of the Doolittle Raid, but rarely is the retribution exacted by the Japanese recognized.

  2. MDB

    Error in facts in your blog. One aircraft safely landed at Vladivostok. Crew, circuitously eventually made it back to the USA. I intend to read this new book and I have heard various figures regarding the Japanese retribution to the Chinese. I suspect however, that given past behavior in China, especially the well documented Nanking Rape, that as a general rule the Japanese did this on a regular basis and the cost of our Propaganda Victory, as it is termed, without callously arguing statistics, was part of a continual program of systematic brutality, including the Unit 731 bio weapons programs, making current events connections indistinguishable on a very large scale. Assigning numbers directly to the Raid aftermath seems daunting at best, especially 73 years later, and without complete records. The story of the war in China is at best frustrating and confusing because the Chinese positioning for political post war purposes. Total Japanese control of China was not feasible, nor were the Japanese capable of administering the vast territory, and this in part explains why China, compared to the remainder of the Allies, instead of directly confronting the Japanese, allowed the territory to sap the strength of the enemy. This is my gut reaction, and could be surprised when I read the book.

    • MDB,

      Thank you for the note. I corrected the error and noted one crew made it to Soviet territory. The point of my post was the cost born by the Chinese civilians, and it is pretty clear that the Japanese specifically targeted the towns and region where the Americans landed. It was also known at the time that the Japanese carried out mass retaliations. See: where the numbers were estimated to be between 250,000-300,000 directly tied to the retaliation campaign.

      Of course, the exact numbers will never be known, but that the Japanese undertook a deliberate campaign of destruction in the wake of the attack, tied directly to the location the aviators landed in, or were supposed to set down in, and that those civilians who had actively helped rescue the Americans (and their towns) paid a terrible, terrible price for their courageous actions.

      My best to you, and thanks for reading!

      John R. Bruning

      • James Bradley gives a horrifying review of Japanese retaliation attack on Chinese civilians after the Dolittle’s raid in his book “Flyboys”. He also writes in details about another bombing raid on Tokyo, on March 9, 1945, that left roughly 100,000 people dead in a single night. The author raises the question of how the public opinion have shifted just in a matter of few years, from condemnation of Japanese bombing of Nanjing in 1937 (600 casualties) to full acceptance of the strategic bombing campaign. Great read, indeed!
        John, thank you for another thought- provoking post!
        P.S. do you still use your yahoo email address? I tried to send you a pic of Captain York’s B-25 shot after its landing near Vladivostok.

      • Boris,

        Thanks for the info, I’ll check Bradley’s book. I have it, but haven’t read it. Bought it just before I left for Afghanistan and just have not circled back to it. Now I have a reason to do so! is my primary email. Would love to see the photo!


  3. Another aftermath were the executions of three airmen in Shanghai; General Shimomura signed the order but it been already generated by departing command. I understand further executions of airmen were possibly stopped at fear of the US retaliating against “Japanese” living in the US. Interestingly, Shimomura was spared further prosecuting by MacArthur/Eichelberger during the time of the war trials.

    Still, the murder of the Chinese populace in the coastal areas where they crash landed was heinous as you report.

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