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The North American B-25 Mitchel: A Legend Named After A Legend

Background

The United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) put out a request for a twin-engine attack bomber in 1938. The initial request was Circular Proposal 38-385. North American tailored a design to meet the USAAC’s specifications. The USAAC decided all future medium bombers would have to carry a 2,400-pound (1,090 kg) payload. This was twice the 38-385 bombload specification. North American redesigned the aircraft. The design so impressed the USAAC that the Air Corps ordered 184 aircraft while the airplane only existed on paper. The USAAC designated the aircraft the B-25 Mitchell.[i]

In an unusual step the USAAC named an aircraft after a person, Major General William “Billy” Mitchell.[ii] General Mitchell was a strong advocate of the importance of military aircraft. He carried out bombing tests in 1921 against captured German warships. Among the ships sunk was a battleship. The U.S. Army found Mitchell guilty of insubordination in a court martial on December 17, 1925. Mitchell resigned six weeks later.

The B-25 made its first flight in January 1939. The B-25 served in the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF), and the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC)[iii]. British, Australian, Dutch, Chinese, and Russian units also flew the B-25. The B-25’s production run was 9,889, more than any other American medium bomber.[iv]


[i] Vintage Aircraft Recognition Guide, by Tony Holmes, © HarpersCollins Pulishers, Inc., 2003. P.206.

[ii] Billy Mitchell died in 1936 and was posthumously promoted to Major General in 1942.

[iii] The USMC Mitchells had the designation PBJ-1. The P stood for patrol.

[iv] Vintage Aircraft Recognition Guide, by Tony Holmes, © HarpersCollins Pulishers, Inc., 2003. P.206.

In Combat

The most famous B-25 mission was the Doolittle Raid. A month after the Pearl Harbor attack the U.S. conceived a Joint Army-Navy bombing project against Japan. Planners chose the B-25 over rival medium bombers for the mission. The final plan called for 16 stripped down Mitchells to fly from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, bomb Japan, and land in China. These aircraft were to conduct bombing operations in China. The USS Hornet and USS Enterprise, were the head of Task Force 16 (TF16). On April 18, 1942 a Japanese ship No.23 Nitto Maru spotted the task for and radioed TF16’s position. The USS Hornet launched the B-25s while it was 650 miles (1,040 km) from Japan. The plan was to launch them 400 miles (640 km) from Japan.[i]

The B-25s damaged the Japanese aircraft carrier Ryuho.[ii] The rest of the damage was negligible. All 16 bombers were lost. One landed in Vladivostok and the Soviet Union interned the crew. The others crash landed in the Japanese occupied parts of China. The Japanese captured one of the Mitchell crews. The Japanese executed Lieutenants Dean E. Hallmark and William G. Farrow, and Sergeant Harold A. Spatz on October 15, 1942 after mock trials. Lieutenant Robert J. Meder died in a Prisoner of War Camp on December 1, 1943 from Japanese maltreatment.[iii] The Japanese killed many Chinese civilians as reprisals because of the aid Chinese civilians gave to the Doolittle raiders. TF16 sank 4 ships, including the No.23 Nitto Maru, and damaged 7 others for the loss of one SBD-3 dive bomber.[iv] The raid boosted the morale of American civilians.

The B-25 was designed for medium altitude level bombing. In the Pacific Mitchells often carried out low-level bombing and strafing. [v] Major Paul Irvin “Pappy” Gunn and North American Technical Representative Jack Fox fitted some B-25’s with extra forward firing guns for low level strafing. This included one B-25 fitted with a 75 mm cannon.[vi] These low-level attacks were better than medium altitude attacks in the tropical rainforest environment that was in many places in the Pacific Theater.

On April 11, 1942 eleven B-25s and three B-17s attacked Japanese targets in the Philippines. They returned to Australia with evacuees from the Philippines. Major Gunn flew the last B-25 out of Mindanao. Groundfire struck Major Gunn’s long-range fuel tank. He nursed his aircraft back to Australia.[vii]

One of the first missions of the Chinese-American Task Force (CATF) was a bombing raid against Kweilin on October 25, 1942. It was General Chiang Kai-shek’s birthday. A force of 12 B-25s and 7 P-40s attacked and claimed 21 Japanese fighters for the loss of a Mitchell.[viii]

B-25s began combat operations in North Africa in November 1942.[ix] Mitchells attacked the Mediterranean Islands of Pantelleria and Lampedusa. [x] On June 11, 1943 Pantelleria surrendered because of the bombing campaign. It was the first time in history a defended land area surrendered because of bombing and without enemy ground forces.[xi] In July B-25s were among the first planes to attack Rome. [xii]

Four B-25s mistook three U.S. PT Boats for Japanese boats on July 20, 1943. The Mitchells sank the PT-166 in the incident.[xiii]

In August 75mm cannon armed B-25Gs carried out their first mission in the Mediterranean Theater. In October B-25s began bombing missions against the Balkans. Mitchells were the first aircraft to attack Monte Casino. B-25s destroyed all the bridges over the Po River. In January, 1944 B-25s cut the rail line between Germany and the Italian front in 15 locations. In April Mitchells flew 4,638 close air support sorties in support of the British 8th and American 5th Armies.[xiv]

One of the B-25’s tactics against ships was skip bombing. On April 6, 1945 24 Mitchells attacked three Japanese ships. The B-25s used skip bombing and strafing to sink the ships, Coastal Defense Vessels No. 1 and No. 134, and the destroyer Amatsukaze. The Amatsukaze took 44 of her 240 sailors with her.[xv]

When the Wehrmacht surrendered in Italy B-25s dropped leaflets on German troops to notify them of the surrender. [xvi]

B-25 Mitchells flew in every American campaign. U.S. B-25s flew over 60,000 missions. The 57th Bomb wing alone flew 52,098 sorties in 2,774 missions. The 57th dropped 71,934 tons of bombs.[xvii]

[i] U.S. Navy History web site, https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/wars-conflicts-and-operations/world-war-ii/1942/halsey-doolittle-raid.html, last accessed, 5/23/2020.

[ii] U.S. Navy History web site, https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/wars-conflicts-and-operations/world-war-ii/1942/halsey-doolittle-raid.html, last accessed, 5/23/2020.

[iii] Enemy in Mirror, Doolittle Raiders Executed, https://www.enemyinmirror.com/make-pay-keep-production-1942/, last accessed 5/31/2020.

[iv] U.S. Navy History web site, https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/wars-conflicts-and-operations/world-war-ii/1942/halsey-doolittle-raid.html, a U.S. destroyer rescued the dive bomber crew, last accessed, 5/23/2020.

[v] War in the Skies, http://warintheskies.com/aircraft/b25.html, last accessed, 5/26/2020.

[vi] Paul Irvin “Pappy” Gunn in Australia During WW2, https://www.ozatwar.com/ozatwar/pappygunn.htm, last accessed 5/26/2020.

[vii] Paul Irvin “Pappy” Gunn in Australia During WW2, https://www.ozatwar.com/ozatwar/pappygunn.htm, last accessed 5/26/2020.

[viii] World Std.com, http://world.std.com/~Ted7/altcamp5.htm, last accessed 5/28/2020.

[ix] Bundslc.com, http://www.budslc.com/ww2/57th.htm, last accessed 5/28/2020.

[x] Bundslc.com, http://www.budslc.com/ww2/57th.htm, last accessed 5/28/2020.

[xi] World War II Almanac 1931-1945m by Robert Goralski © 1981, P266-268.

[xii] Bundslc.com, http://www.budslc.com/ww2/57th.htm, last accessed 5/28/2020.

[xiii] Pacific Wrecks, https://www.pacificwrecks.com/ships/ptboat/PT-166.html, last accessed, 5/26/2020.

[xiv] Bundslc.com, http://www.budslc.com/ww2/57th.htm, last accessed 5/28/2020.

[xv] Rare Historical Photos, https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/b-25-bombs-kaibokan-ship-1945/, last accessed, 5/26/2020.

[xvi] Bundslc.com, http://www.budslc.com/ww2/57th.htm, last accessed 5/28/2020.

[xvii] Bundslc.com, http://www.budslc.com/ww2/57th.htm, last accessed 5/28/2020.

Russian Mitchells

The Soviet Union (USSR) wanted American 4-engine bombers but the United States refused. Instead the U.S. gave the USSR B-25 Mitchells. America gave the USSR 861 Mitchells, which accounted for 10% of the Soviet Air Force’s long-range fleet. B-25s carried out attacks against rear area targets during the first half of World War II. From 1943 Mitchells attacked strategic targets in Germany, including Berlin.[i]


[i] VVS Air War, https://vvsairwar.com/2016/09/13/it-was-a-beautiful-aircraft-the-soviet-b-25s/, last accessed 5/30/2020.

Chinese Mitchells

The Nationalist Chinese acquired B-25s under the Lend Lease program during World War II. After World War II the Nationalist Chinese used the B-25s against the Communist insurgency. There were over 30 B-25s in the Nationalist Chinese Air Force. Many of the B-25s flew to Taiwan when the Nationalist forces fled the Chinese mainland in December 1948. Some B-25s fell into Communist hands and were incorporated into the People’s Republic of China Air Force.[i]


[i] Joe Baugher, B-25 Mitchell in Service with China, http://www.joebaugher.com/usaf_bombers/b25_26.html, last accessed 5/30/2020.

B-25 and Contemporaries

*Aircraft often had non-standard ordinance and defensive armament configurations.
Source: Vintage Aircraft Recognition Guide by Tony Holmes (c) HarperCollins Publishers 2005.

 B-25B-26Ju 88

Max Speed

272mph (438kmh)

310mph (500 kmh)

292mph (470 kmh)

Range

1,350 Miles (2,173 km)

1,150 miles (1,850 km)

1,696 miles (2m730 km)

Powerplant Output

2x3,700 hp (2,760 kW)

2x3,700 hp (2,760 kW)

2x2,680 hp (2,000 kW)

Ordinance Load*

3,000lb (1,361 kg) bombs internal, wing racks for rocket

5,300 lb (2,539 kg)

4,409 lb (2,000 kg)

Defensive Armament*

12x50 cal (12.7 mm) machine guns.

5x50 cal (12.7 mm) machine guns

7x30 cal (7.9mm) machine guns

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Robert Sacchi (author) on June 03, 2020:

Yes, it is very unusual. General Mitchell was a big airpower advocate. The court martial was considered by many airpower advocated as him being persecuted for telling the truth. It is one of those incidents in history where the history lionized the convicted and vilified the prosecutors.

FlourishAnyway from USA on June 03, 2020:

This is a significant plane. It’s interesting that they named it after Mitchell given his insubordination. What was the Lend Lease program? Just wondering how some of these countries ended up with these planes.

Robert Sacchi (author) on June 01, 2020:

Thank you both for reading and commenting.

MG Singh - I believe I did read your article on Indian B-24s.

Peggy Woods - He was court martialed for insubordination. He was too forward in his criticism of the top brass. The demonstration where he sank the battleship Ostfriesland and other ships heightened tensions between him and the Navy top brass.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on June 01, 2020:

I can say it is a glorious article. My father flew the B24.Liberator.These were in use by USAF during WWII. Later the IAF used them till 1968.loved reading your article with its wealth of information.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on June 01, 2020:

The B-25 indeed turned out to be a very successful aircraft. You have documented many of these battles and how the plane was used in them.

You mentioned Mitchel being court-martialed and then resigning. Was it due to his sinking a captured German battleship? I assume that once caught, it should have been protected and not used for bombing practice?

Robert Sacchi (author) on May 31, 2020:

Thank you both for reading and commenting. The Japanese killed many Chinese, men, women, and Children. In World War II 17 million Chinese civilians were killed. Many were kill in the crossfire but the Japanese were notorious for their atrocities in China, and other places they occupied. The B-25 played an important part in World War II. It was a popular plane with its pilots.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 31, 2020:

The B25 was sure something used extensively in WWII. I hate the fact that men men killed by the Japanese when ne of the planes landed in China. Yes after WWII the Nationalist Chinese used the planes against the communist insurgency. I enjoyed learning from this very good article, Robert.

Liz Westwood from UK on May 31, 2020:

The B25 seems to have played a big part for the USA in World War 2. This is an interesting and well-illustrated article.