By Colonel (CA, Ret) Norman S.
Marshall and Chief Warrant Officer (CA) Mark J. Denger
California Center for Military
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
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