(USS Shangri-La CV-38), an Essex-class aircraft carrier in August 1946)
This U.S. aircraft carrier is the USS Shangri-La, built during World War II and commissioned on 15 September 1944. Most aircraft carriers are named after battles or earlier U.S. Navy ships. Why was this one named after a fictitious place in a novel, the book Lost Horizon by James Hilton? The answer lies in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s sense of humor and the daring “Doolittle Raid” on Tokyo on 18 April 1944.
The early months of U.S. involvement in the Pacific war were marked by Japanese advances and Allied defeats. To shake Japan’s sense of invincibility and boost U.S. morale at home, the Navy developed a plan to bomb Tokyo and other targets in the Japanese homeland by launching bombers from an aircraft carrier. This project was no mean feat. The bombers—U.S. Army B-25B Mitchell medium bombers—were land-based planes that had to be significantly modified to carry out the mission. Most particularly, they had to be fitted with larger fuel capacity for their long range deployment. The crews of the planes, all volunteers, were specially trained to take off on a short runway. The planes were too big to land on an aircraft carrier so after delivering their payload, they were supposed to fly to Allied fields in China to land.
On 18 April, sixteen bombers, led by Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle of the U.S. Army Air Corps, took off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. They dropped their bombs over Japan, doing little physical damage but delivering a psychic blow to the Japanese and a lift to the American public. Then the planes flew on to China and the Soviet Union. Because the planes had had to launch further east of Japan than initially planned, they didn’t have enough fuel to reach their target air fields, and most of their crews had to crash land or bail out. Despite all, most of the plane crews survived the war.
President Roosevelt was at Hyde Park on the day of the raid. John McCrea, his naval aide, called him from Washington the following day to deliver his morning briefing. In Captain McCrea’s War, McCrea described their conversations about the raid:
“The most important item of the morning’s report, Mr. President, is that U.S. planes made an air attack on Tokyo.”
“Really?” said the president with a laugh. Of course, he was privy to the whole operation, and the raid was no surprise to him. “And where, John, do you suppose those planes came from?”
“That, Mr. President, is what the Japanese want to know. According to our intelligence sources, that question is on the lips of everyone in Tokyo.” I moved on to the other items of my report.
About one o’clock that afternoon, the president called me. “I think I can answer the Japanese who are asking where the air raid came from. Ask Ernie King if he doesn’t think it would be a good idea to say the raid came from Shangri-La. If we do, when this story reaches Japan, every Japanese will be busy looking at his or her equivalent of the Rand-McNally Atlas trying to find Shangri-La.”
I called Admiral King and told him what the president had said. Admiral King laughed softly and said he thought rather well of the idea. Soon a press release was issued stating that it was “rumored” that the attack planes were from their base in Shangri-La.
The name of the carrier USS Shangri-La derives from FDR’s little joke on the Japanese people. When the carrier was launched on 24 February 1944, the ship was christened by Mrs. James H. Doolittle, wife of the leader of the Doolittle Raid.
McCrea, Vice Adm. John L. Captain McCrea’s War: etc. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2016. Pp. 89-90.
“Doolittle Raid,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doolittle_Raid, last accessed 4.19.2017.
“USS Shangri-La (CV-38),” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doolittle_Raid, last accessed 4.19.2017.