Wars and Battle, 1896-1993
"Jimmy was a short, muscular fireplug of a man with a confident grin above his cleft chin. His nose was a little crooked from having been broken on his road to becoming a boxing champion. He was just five feet four inches tall and never weighed more than 145 pounds, but he was a giant who reached the clouds, a king of the sky."
From the novel, Fly Boys, by James Bradley.
The man famous for his daredevil B-25 bombing raid on Tokyo was none other than the "Babe Ruth of Flyboys," the boisterous "Jimmy" Doolittle. However, General Doolittle's aviation legacy is just a fraction of what he ultimately achieved in his near-century-long life.
Born in Alameda, California, on December 14th, 1896, James Harold Doolittle spent the first three years of his life in California with his mother. His father, inspired by a touch of "gold fever," left the carpenter trade for Alaska when Jimmy was an infant. At three and a half years of age, Doolittle's mother brought him with her to join his father in Nome, Alaska.
When he was 11, he moved with his mother to Los Angeles, where he developed an interest in flying. He became a professional boxer and entered the University of California's School of Mines, in 1915.
Learning to fly
Doolittle was a junior at the University of California when the United States entered World War I. He soon enlisted as a flying cadet in the Army Signal Enlisted Reserve Corps to train as a pilot, where he first earned his wings — quickly making second lieutenant in 1918. Doolittle served in the United States Army Air Corps from 1917 until 1930, eventually becoming promoted to major.
After he learned to fly, Doolittle served as an instructor pilot and began to engage in aerobatics, always with dreams of breaking aviation records. In 1922 he made the first cross-continental crossing in less than a day, taking 21 hours and 19 minutes to fly his De Havilland DH-4 from Pablo Beach, Florida, to San Diego, California — stopping only once to refuel.
Jimmie Doolittle enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1923. He would systmatically obtain a master's degree and then a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering. After receiving his degrees in June of 1925, fewer than 100 people in the world held comparable credentials.
In his doctoral dissertation, "Wind Velocity Gradient and Its Effect on Flying Characteristics," he combined laboratory data with test flight data to determine that a pilot needed visual aids or instruments to know the direction and speed of the wind and the direction in which the plane was flying. His dissertation collided with the assumption of many other contemporary pilots that they could "know" that information instinctively.
In 1927, Doolittle was the first person to successfully execute an outside loop — previously thought to be a fatal maneuver. Carried out in a Curtiss fighter at Wright Field in Ohio, Doolittle executed the dive from 10,000 feet, reached 280 miles per hour, bottomed out upside down, then climbed and completed the loop.
As the first person to win all major aviation racing trophies, Doolittle also won the Schneider Trophy in 1925, for flying a Curtiss Navy racer seaplane the fastest it had ever been flown, averaging 232 miles per hour.
In April 1926, Doolittle got a leave of absence to go to South America to do airplane demonstration flights. At a party in Argentina, after a few too many drinks, he demonstrated handstands on a high balcony when the balcony gave way, and he broke both of his ankles. Despite the accident, Doolittle put his Curtiss P-1 through stirring aerial maneuvers the next day, with his casted ankles strapped to the rudders. Doolittle looked at the practical side: He could leave his bulky parachute behind since his feet were strapped in and he could not get out in an emergency.
Doolittle returned to the United States, and was admitted to Walter Reed Hospital for his injuries until April 1927. He was then assigned to McCook Field for experimental work, and additional duty as instructor with the Organized Reserves of the Fifth Corps Area's 385th Bomb Squadron.
In 1931, after leaving the Army Air Corps and going to work for Shell Oil Corporation, he won the Bendix Trophy by flying from Burbank, California, to Cleveland, Ohio, establishing a new speed record. He crossed the country in 11 hours, 16 minutes and 10 seconds, beating the record set earlier that year by one hour and eight minutes.
In 1932, he won the Thompson Trophy race at Cleveland in a Granville Gee Bee R-1 racer, averaging 252 miles per hour (reaching a top speed of 406 mph), and established the world landplane speed record of 296 mph.
World War II and the Korean War
Jimmy Doolittle became a national hero and received the Congressional Medal of Honor for leading an aircraft carrier-based bomber raid on Tokyo, Japan, on April 18th, 1942. The "Doolittle Raid" was the first attack on Japan by the U.S. in World War II, and occurred just four months after the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.
Following the Tokyo raid, Doolittle returned to Washington D.C. and was picked up in a staff car by Hap Arnold and Army Chief of Staff George Marshall. As the car headed downtown, Doolittle asked where they were going. The question was greeted with a stare from Marshall and Arnold’s grin. Doolittle broke the silence. “I think there’s something going on that I don’t know about. I’m not a very smart fellow and if it involves me I think somebody had better tell me so they won’t be embarrassed.”“Jimmy,” Arnold said, “we’re on our way to the White House. The president is going to give you the Medal of Honor.”
After his heroic displays of courage over Tokyo, President Franklin D. Roosevelt promoted Doolittle from lieutenant colonel to brigadier general — skipping the rank of colonel. He was then assigned as the commanding general of the 12th Air Force in North Africa, the 15th Air Force in Italy, the Eighth Air Force in England and then on Okinawa during the Island hopping campaign. While in command, Doolittle was promoted to major general, then lieutenant general.
At the start of the Korean War in March 1951, Doolittle was appointed as special assistant to the Air Force chief of staff, in which he served as a civilian in scientific matters that led to Air Force ballistic missile and space programs.
Doolittle entered his postwar service as an advisor to the Air Force, such intelligence agencies as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and presidents. From 1955 until 1958 he served as chairman of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), advising the U.S. Air Force on future aviation and space technologies.
From 1955 until 1965, Doolittle also was a member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, which evaluated intelligence operations. In 1958, he was offered the position of first administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which he declined.
Doolittle retired from Air Force duty February 28, 1959, then went on to become the chairman of the board of Space Technology Laboratories.
A legend in aviation
In 1985, although long retired from active duty, retired Lieutenant General James H. Doolittle became General James H. Doolittle, when President Reagan and Senator Goldwater pinned on the same four-star insignia that General George Patton had been given on the occasion of receiving his fourth star, more than 40 years earlier.
In addition to the nation's top award, Doolittle also received two Distinguished Service Medals, the Silver Star, three Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Bronze Star, four Air Medals, and decorations from Great Britain, France, Belgium, Poland, China, and Ecuador.
James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle passed away at the age of 97 on September 27th, 1993.