Californians and the Military
General James Harold "Jimmy" Doolittle
By Colonel (CA, Ret) Norman S. Marshall and Chief Warrant Officer (CA) Mark J. Denger
California Center for Military History
Perhaps one of the best known of California's aviators is James Harold Doolittle. Doolittle was one of the pioneers of instrument flying and of advanced technology, while also being an outstanding combat leader, commanding the Twelfth, Fifteenth, and Eighth Air Forces during World War II.

James Harold Doolittle, the son of Frank H. and Rosa C. (Shephard) Doolittle, was born on December 14, 1896 in Alameda, California. Jimmy Doolittle grew up in Los Angeles and as a fast punching boy became renowned for his street fighting. After at least one arrest for brawling, he turned to amateur boxing and became the amateur flyweight champion of the West Coast. James attended Los Angeles Junior College, and spent a year at the University of California School of Mines before dropping out to enlist as a flying cadet in the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps Reserve in October 1917 and trained at the School of Military Aeronautics, University of California and Rockwell Field California. It was here that he married the lovely Josephine E. Daniels on December 24, 1917.

He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps on March 11, 1918, and served successively at Camp Dick, Texas; Wright Field, Ohio; Gerstner Field, Louisiana; and returned back to Rockwell Field, chiefly as a flight leader and gunnery instructor. He then went to Kelly Field, Texas, for duty first with the 104th Aero Squadron, and next with the 90th Squadron on border patrol duty at Eagle Pass, Texas.

After World War I Doolittle received his commission in the U.S. Army on July 1, 1920 and a promotion to first lieutenant. He then took the Air Service Mechanical School and Aeronautical Engineering courses at Kelly Field and McCook Field, Ohio, respectively. In September 1922 he made the first of many pioneering flights which earned him most of the major air trophies and international fame.

On September 4, 1922, Lieutenant Jimmy Doolittle flew a DH-4B, equipped with crude navigational instruments, in the first transcontinental flight across the country, taking off from Pablo Beach, Florida, and landing at Rockwell Field at North Island, San Diego, California, covering a distance of 2,163 miles in 21 hours and 19 minutes. He made only one refueling stop at Kelly Field near San Antonio, Texas. The military awarded him his first Distinguished Flying Cross for this historic feat. In the same year he received his bachelor of arts degree from the University of California.

In July 1923 he entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for special engineering courses and graduated the following year with a master of science degree, completing his doctoral of science degree in Aeronautics a year later, and being one of the first men in the country to earn a doctorate in aeronautics.

Doolittle's doctoral dissertation, "Wind Velocity Gradient and Its Effect on Flying Characteristics," disproved the popular theory held by many pilots of the day that they could tell wind direction and the level plane by instinct even when they could not see the ground or horizon. Applying classroom theory to test flights in the worst possible weather, Doolittle determined that there was no accurate way for a pilot to know how the wind was blowing or the altitude of the plane unless he had visual aids or instruments. These were believed to be the first studies in aeronautics to directly combine data from the laboratory with data from the flights of a test pilot.

In March 1924 he served at McCook Field conducting aircraft acceleration tests. In June 1925 Doolittle went to the Naval Air Station in Washington, D.C., for special training in flying high-speed seaplanes. During this period he served for a while with the Naval Test Board at Mitchel, New York, and was a familiar figure in airspeed record attempts in the New York area. In October 1925, fitted with streamlined single-step wooden floats and designated the Curtiss Navy Racer, R3C-2, Doolittle won the Schneider Cup - the World's Series of seaplane racing - with an average speed of 232.57 miles per hour. On the day after the Schneider Cup race, Doolittle flew the R3C-2 over a straight course at a world record speed of 245.7 m.p.h. This was the fastest a seaplane had ever flown, and Doolittle the following year received the Mackay Trophy for this feat.
In April 1926 he was granted a leave of absence to go to South America on airplane demonstration flights. In Chile he broke both ankles but put his Curtiss P-1 through stirring aerial maneuvers with his ankles in casts. He returned to the United States and was in Walter Reed Hospital for these injuries until April 1927 when he was assigned to McCook Field for experimental work and additional duty as instructor with Organized Reserves of the Fifth Corps Area's 385th Bomb Squadron.

Returning to Mitchel Field in September 1928, he assisted in the development of fog flying equipment. He helped develop the now almost universally used artificial horizontal and directional gyroscopes and made the first flight completely by instruments. He attracted wide newspaper attention with this feat of "blind" flying and later received the Harmon Trophy for conducting the experiments.

Doolittle resigned his Army commission on February 15, 1930 because of what he called his advanced age. He was 34. He transferred to the Officer Reserve Corps and received a commission as a major in the Specialist Reserve Corps a month later. Jimmy, now in the private sector, was named manager of the Aviation Department of the Shell Petroleum Corporation, in which capacity he conducted numerous aviation tests. He returned to active duty with the Army frequently to conduct tests, and in 1932 set the world's high speed record for land planes with a speed averaging 252 miles per hour. He won the Bendix Trophy in a race from Burbank, California, to Cleveland in a Laird Biplane, and participated in the National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio, where he took the Thompson Trophy in the Gee Bee racer, an erratic aircraft some called the flying death trap, setting a world land speed record of 296 miles an hour (476 kilometers an hour).

In April 1934 Doolittle became a member of the Army Board to study Air Corps organization and a year later was transferred to the Air Corps Reserve. In 1940 he became president of the Institute of Aeronautical Science. That year, on July 1, 1940, he again returned to active duty as a major and assistant district supervisor of the Central Air Corps Procurement District at Indianapolis, Indiana, and Detroit, Michigan, where he worked with large auto manufacturers on the conversion of their plants for production of planes. The following August he went to England as a member of a special mission to survey British aircraft production and brought back information about other countries' air forces and military buildups.

His next assignment put him at the controls of the new, twin-engine B-26 Marauder bomber, which pilots called the "widowmaker" because several had crashed. Its 100-mile-an-hour (160-kilometer-an-hour) landing speed and stubby wings made it tricky to handle. Doolittle proved that the B-26 was a safe and effective aircraft and convinced pilots that all they needed to do was learn how to fly it. Lieutenant General H. H. Arnold, the Chief of the Army Air Forces, gave Doolittle the job of proving that the B-26 was a safe and effective aircraft. Arnold was one of the first pilots in what would become the U.S. Army Air Forces and had received his wings in 1911 after being personally instructed by one of the Wright Brothers. Doolittle was successful in taming the B-26 Marauder and convinced pilots that all they needed to do was learn how to fly it properly.

A month after the Pearl Harbor disaster, at a White House meeting on January 4, 1942, President Roosevelt asked his senior military leaders to find a way to strike back at Japan. At this grim point in the Pacific War, he believed that an air attack against Japan was the best way to bolster American morale.

Realistically, little could be done. Proposals included sending Army planes to bomb Japan from bases in the Aleutian Islands, Soviet Siberia, and China. But the Aleutians were too far from the main Japanese island of Honshu. The Soviet Union and Japan were not at war. Transporting bombs and fuel to bases in China was extremely difficult, and Japanese air and ground forces could easily thwart such a venture.

Roosevelt was particularly taken with the idea of bombing from bases in China. Lieutenant General H. H. Arnold responded that he was studying such a bombing mission against Japan. Preliminary plans were being developed calling for the bombers to fly to advanced bases in China, land under cover of darkness, refuel, and fly on to bomb Japan. But, added Arnold, it would take "a few months" to get the gasoline and fields available for the bombers and that these advanced bases in China could be easily attacked should the Japanese learn of the operations.

The problem seemed unsolvable until an idea came to Captain Francis S. "Frog" Low, the operations officer on the staff of Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander in Chief U.S. Fleet. Captain Low advised Admiral King that when he was taking off from Norfolk, Virginia, on a flight back to Washington, he had noticed the outline of a carrier flight deck painted on the runway of the naval airfield used to train Navy pilots. "I saw some Army twin-engine planes making bombing passes at this simulated carrier deck. I thought if the Army had some twin-engine bombers with a range greater than our [carrier planes], it seems to me a few of them could be loaded on a carrier and used to bomb Japan."

After listening to Low, a submariner, King, who had been both an aviation and submarine officer, leaned back and thought a moment. Then he said, "You may have something there, Low. Talk to Duncan about it in the morning. And don't tell anyone else about this." Thus, the plan was born for the first direct attack against Japan. It was the evening of January 10, 1942, on board King's flagship VIXEN, a former German yacht moored at the Washington Navy Yard.

The next morning, Low met with Captain Donald B. Duncan, a pilot, who was King's air operations officer. Duncan told Low that it was impossible for an Army twin-engine bomber to land on a carrier. If it could be lifted on by crane, a fully armed plane might be able to take off, but it would have to fly back to a land base.

Despite the many provisos, Duncan was intrigued by the possibilities of a carrier-based raid on Japan, and for the next few days he and Low read Army technical manuals on twin-engine aircraft, checked carrier specifications, and prepared a 30-page handwritten memo. It was a brilliant analytical paper. It concluded that such an operation was possible, although fraught with problems and risks. Duncan and Low then went to Admiral King and briefed him on their progress. After hearing them out, King told them, "Go see General Arnold about it, and if he agrees with you, ask him to get in touch with me. And don't you two mention this to another soul!"

On January 17, Low and Duncan outlined the idea to General Arnold, who immediately agreed to the proposal. Duncan and Low proposed a test takeoff of twin-engine B-25 Mitchell bombers from the aircraft carrier HORNET, then at Norfolk, Virginia. Arnold assigned three B-25s to try some short-field takeoffs, and on February 2 two of them were lifted aboard the HORNET by crane and spotted, one forward and one aft, as if they were two of 15 tightly arranged on the flight deck. The carrier steamed out into the Atlantic, and the Army pilots easily took off. But there was a great difference between flying off two bombers, with little fuel and no bombs, and perhaps a dozen or more fully loaded planes in the rough seas of the North Pacific.

Meanwhile, Arnold had assigned Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle to assemble a group of volunteer pilots and planes for the raid, modify the planes with extra gas tanks and other features, and start a training program –all quickly and with the utmost secrecy.
Doolittle now began one of the most intense training programs in aviation history. Lieutenant Henry L. (Hank) Miller, a Navy carrier pilot, was assigned to him to teach the Army pilots how to take off with a run of only 350 feet –about a quarter of what the Army pilots were used to when they took off bomb-laden B-25s. Meanwhile, the carrier HORNET raced south from Norfolk, through the Panama Canal, and up to San Francisco. At Pearl Harbor, Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, the Navy's senior carrier force commander, and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the Pacific Fleet commander, worked out the details of the raid. The HORNET would carry the Army bombers, while Halsey, aboard the ENTERPRISE, would provide cover for the task force, which would also include four cruisers, eight destroyers, and two oilers.

There was not enough time to fully train the B-25 crews, and their new, extensively modified B-25B bombers still had "bugs." The additional fuel tanks being installed leaked, and the electrically operated twin .50-caliber gun turrets atop the fuselage were not working properly. The turret problems and an ammunition shortage prevented any of the gunners from firing on a moving target from a B-25 in flight. But the mission was urgent. The Japanese continued to win victory after victory in the South Pacific, and President Roosevelt was growing impatient. So fast were developments taking place –and so secret were the preparations –that until 24 hours before the raid, only seven people knew the complete plan to attack Tokyo – King, Nimitz, Arnold, Halsey, Low, Duncan, and Doolittle. Only as the U.S.S. HORNET was nearing the takeoff point did King go to the White House and give details about the raid to President Roosevelt.

Doolittle was an old man by Army Air Force standards, at the age of 45, he had never actually flown in combat. Doolittle knew he would have to do some fast talking to get Arnold to let him lead the strike. In fact, Arnold at first did refuse, but Doolittle was able to outmaneuver his chief and won approval to lead the strike.

Under secret orders, Doolittle's bombers flew from their training site, Eglin Field in Florida, to McClellan Field in Sacramento, California. After a final series of checks, the B-25s then flew to Alameda Naval Air Station near San Francisco. There 16 twin-engine bombers were loaded by crane onto the deck of the HORNET –the maximum number that Doolittle, Duncan and Low felt could be safely flown off. Doolittle met secretly with Halsey in San Francisco to go over the final steps of the plan, and on April 2 the HORNET steamed out of San Francisco Bay.

West of Hawaii, the ENTERPRISE and HORNET task groups rendezvoused on April 13, and the 16 ships set course for Japan with fighters and scout bombers from the ENTERPRISE, Halsey's flagship, flying protective cover. On the morning of April 18, the planes were loaded with bombs and ammunition, fueled, and spotted on the HORNET's deck for takeoff. Halsey gave the order to go, sent by flashing light from ENTERPRISE to the HORNET: "LAUNCH PLANES. TO COL DOOLITTLE AND GALLANT COMMAND GOOD LUCK AND GOD BLESS YOU –HALSEY." At 8;20 A.M., 770 miles east of Japan, Doolittle took off from the HORNET in the lead bomber. In just over an hour all 16 of the planes had been launched, each flown by a crew of five.

Beginning at 12:15 P.M. the first of thirteen planes struck Tokyo. The other planes hit Kobe, Nagoya, and Yokohama, all with little opposition. When the smoke cleared, the bomb damage was minimal. But the daring one-way mission of April 18, 1942 electrified the world and gave America's war hopes a terrific lift. As did the others who participated in the mission, Doolittle had to bail out, but fortunately landed in a rice paddy in China near Chu Chow. Some of the other flyers lost their lives on the mission. Doolittle and, eventually, 63 other fliers who came down in China made their way back to the United States.

Doolittle was hailed as a hero. He was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Roosevelt and promoted to brigadier general, skipping the rank of colonel. His citation reads:

"For conspicuous leadership above and beyond the call of duty, involving personal valor and intrepidity at an extreme hazard to life. With the apparent certainty of being forced to land in enemy territory or to perish at sea, Lt. Col. Doolittle personally led a squadron of Army bombers, manned by volunteer crews, in a highly destructive raid on the Japanese mainland."

When asked where the bombers came from, President Roosevelt laughed and replied, "Shangri-La," referring to the mythical Asian kingdom in James Hilton's popular novel Lost Horizon. (The U.S. Navy promptly named an aircraft carrier under construction the SHANGRI-LA.)

It would be more than two years before another bomb would fall on Japan and several months after that before another would strike the capital of Tokyo. Still, the "Doolittle Raid" was the first step on the long and bloody road of retribution for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And as the Pacific War raged on, both American and Japanese leaders would wonder if that road would ultimately lead to the shore of Japan itself. The "Doolittle Raid" had proved that the home islands were indeed vulnerable to air and sea attack.

In July 1942, as a brigadier general - he had been advanced two grades the day after the Tokyo attack - Doolittle was assigned to the 8th Air Force and in September became commanding general of the 12th Air Force in North Africa. In February 1943 Doolittle assumed command of the Anglo-American Strategic Air Force in North Africa. He was promoted to major general in November and in March 1943 became commanding general of the North African Strategic Air Forces, which covered the central Mediterranean area.

In January 1944 Doolittle took command of the Eighth Air Force in England, flying heavy bombers against European targets (he was promoted to lieutenant general after taking command). He held that command until May 1945, when he began moving part of the Eighth Air Force to the Pacific in preparation for operations against Japan.

Doolittle left active duty on January 5, 1946, as a lieutenant general. On May 10, 1946 he reverted to inactive reserve status and returned to Shell Oil as a vice president and later as its director. General Doolittle became the first president of the Air Force Association, in 1947, assisting its organization.

In March 1951 he was appointed a special assistant to the Air Force chief of staff, serving as a civilian in scientific matters which led to Air Force ballistic missile and space programs. Between 1956 and 1958 he became the advisor to the Commission on National Security Organization and served on the Joint Congressional Aviation Policy Board. From 1956 to 1965 he served as a member of the advisory board of the National Air Museum, Smithsonian Institute.

He retired from Air Force duty on February 28, 1959 but continued to serve his country as chairman of the board of Space Technology Laboratories. In 1961 he served as a consultant to TRW Systems and became a trustee of Aerospace Corporation in 1963. Upon his retirement in 1969, he and his wife, Josephine, made their home in Santa Monica, with an office on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles.

General Doolittle was a close and lifelong friend of another California general, George S. Patton, Jr., and throughout their military careers were frequently promoted at about the same time, with Patton receiving the earlier date of rank. When Patton was promoted to four-star rank in Europe on April 14, 1945, Doolittle visited Patton's headquarters to have dinner and to congratulate him. After dinner, Patton handed a set of four star insignia to Doolittle. Doolittle protested that he was still a Lieutenant General (three-star rank), but Patton answered, "Yes, Jimmy, I know, but you'll be getting it soon." In 1974, General Doolittle donated Patton's stars to the Air Force Mueum. In recounting the event, General Doolittle commented, "You know, of course, I never did."

In 1985, however, General Doolittle was promoted to four-star rank following President Reagan's nomination and Senate confirmation. The U.S. Congress promoted him to full general on the Air Force retired list on April 4, 1985. The Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base took the original four-star insignia from its collection and sent them to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force for use in the "pinning-on" ceremony. In June 1985, retired Lieutenant General James H. Doolittle became General James H. Doolittle when President Reagan and Senator Goldwater pinned on the same four-star insignia General Patton had given him more than 40 years earlier. General Doolittle thus became the first person in Air Force Reserve history to wear four stars.

In addition to the Congressional Medal of Honor, Doolittle received the Distinguished Service Medal with oak leaf cluster, Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Crosse with two oak leaf clusters, Bronze Star, Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, and several foreign decorations, including Great Britain (knight commander Order of the Bath), France (grande officer French Legion d'Honneur, Croix de Gueere with palm), Belgium (grande officer Order of Crown with palm and Croix de Guerre with palm), Bolivian (Order of Condor medal), Poland, China (Yon-Hwei Class III) and Ecuador. And, on July 6, 1989, President George H.W. Bush awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation's highest civilian honor, to James Harold "Jimmy" Doolittle.

At the age of 96, General Jimmy Doolittle died at his home in Pebble Beach, California, on September 27, 1993. Befitting his impact on U.S. aviation history, Doolittle was buried with full military honors in Section 7-A of Arlington National Cemetery, with his high school sweetheart, Josephine Daniels Doolittle (May 24, 1895 - December 24, 1988).

After a service at the Fort Myer Memorial Chapel, Doolittle's flag-draped coffin was placed on a military caisson. Drawn by six horses, the caisson traveled down a winding road from the chapel to the grave. Leading the entourage was the U.S. Air Force Band and 50 honor guards. Hundreds of mourners joined friends and family who followed the caisson. Doolittle was given an elaborate ceremony reserved for dignitaries. It included a 21-gun salute and flyover by 11 aircraft, including a B-1B, a twin-propeller World War II B-25 bomber, eight F-15 and F-16 fighter jets and a C-141 cargo jet. After a brief graveside service, one of the Doolittle Raiders tried to play taps in honor of his former commander, but retired Colonel William Bower could manage only a few faltered notes before having to pass the bugle to Doolittle's great-grandson who finished the playing of taps flawlessly.

Several biographies have been written about him, including: Lowell Thomas and Edward Jablonski, Doolittle: A Biography (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976); Carroll V. Glines, Jimmy Doolittle: Daredevil Aviator and Scientist (New York: Macmillan, 1972); Glines again, Jimmy Doolittle: Master of the Calculated Risk (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1980); Carl Mann, Lightning in the Sky: The Story of Jimmy Doolittle (New York: McBride, 1943); and Quentin Reynolds, The Amazing Mr. Doolittle: A Biography of Lieutenant General James H. Doolittle (New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1953).

The film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo was based on the autobiography, and shown through the perspective, of Captain Ted W. Lawson (played in the film by Van Johnson), an aircraft commander during the Doolittle Raid who lost a leg when his B-25 crashed in China. Although the film dwelt heavily on Lawson's relationship with his wife, Spencer Tracy's Doolittle was a major character in the film and it did cover the preparations, raid and aftermath with as much detail and accuracy as could be given considering that the war was still going on at the time. Another film, The Purple Heart (1945) was a reconstructed account of the fate of one of the other B-25 crews of the Doolittle Raid who were captured by the Japanese, recounting their trial and execution for war crimes, but Doolittle himself was not depicted in that film. Doolittle was also portrayed during the Tokyo mission by Alec Baldwin in Pearl Harbor (2001).

Jimmy Doolittle's son, retired Air Force Colonel John P. Doolittle and grandson, Colonel James H. Doolittle, III, vice commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center, Edwards Air Force Base, California, were on hand for the opening of the U.S. Air Force museum's World War II Tokyo Raid exhibit.
Search our Site!
Search the Web Search California Military History Online
Questions and comments concerning this site should be directed to the Webmaster
Updated 8 February 2016