James Harold Doolittle (1896-1993) was a pilot who set two early transcontinental flying time records, pioneered advancements in aviation, led the Tokyo raid in 1942, and commanded the Eighth Air Force attack on Germany.
James Harold Doolittle was born in Alameda, California, on December 14, 1896, the only child of Frank, a carpenter, and Rosa Shephard Doolittle. Most of his youth was spent in Nome, Alaska, and Los Angeles, where he graduated from Manual Arts High School in 1914. Delicate as a child and small of stature, Doolittle nevertheless developed a love of adventure and a scrappy disposition, taking up motorbike riding and boxing as he grew older. His enthusiasm for homemade gliders developed into a lifelong commitment to aviation.
After two years at Los Angeles Junior College, Doolittle enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley to study mining engineering. He never completed his studies (several years later he was awarded a bachelor's degree, however), for in September 1917 he enrolled in the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army hoping to become a pilot. He was commissioned a second lieutenant on March 9, 1918. A few months earlier he had married Josephine "Joe" Daniels. They had two sons.
Service as an Army Pilot
Doolittle saw no overseas duty during World War I, but remained in the service after the war ended and received a first lieutenant's commission in the Regular Army in 1920. A member of Billy Mitchell's team during the controversial bomber versus battleship tests of 1921, Doolittle himself emerged as a public figure in 1922 when he flew from Pablo Beach (near Jacksonville), Florida, to San Diego in less than 22 hours flying time, the first to span the continent in less than 24 hours. Nine years later, in the course of winning the Bendix Trophy race, he recorded the first transcontinental flying time of less than 12 hours. Doolittle, however, was much more than the daredevil aviator he was reputed to be, for at bottom he believed that one took chances in the air for a serious purpose: to further the usefulness of aviation. Selected to be one of the first participants in the army's new program in aeronautical engineering, he received a doctorate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1925.
During the 1920s and early 1930s Doolittle, both as a student and as a pilot, made several important contributions to the advancement of aviation. Besides the two transcontinental speed records he established, he set additional speed records and in various ways added to the understanding of acceleration's effects. He became the first North American to fly across the Andes; and, perhaps most important, after further studies and research at the Full Flight Laboratory he made the first blind flight and landing on September 24, 1929. Doolittle's participation in the development and use of instruments such as the Sperry artificial horizon would do much to increase the safety of flying, enabling it to take place in varying weather conditions.
Given a major's rank in the reserves, Doolittle left active military service to join the Shell Oil Company in 1930. With his mother and mother-in-law in need of special medical attention he felt he needed the higher income he could earn in private industry. He did promotional and sales work for Shell and on occasion for Curtiss-Wright throughout the 1930s. Although he gave up racing in 1932, believing that after several close calls he had used up his luck, he remained active as a pilot.
World War II Hero
With the start of World War II in Europe, Doolittle asked his long-time friend, General Henry "Hap" Arnold, who was now chief of the Army Air Corps, to return him to active duty. On July 1, 1940, Doolittle re-entered uniformed service as a major assigned to straighten out aircraft production bottlenecks. After America's entry into the war he sought combat duty but instead was attached to Arnold's staff with the rank of lieutenant colonel. This new position ultimately involved him in one of the war's most daring achievements—the April 1942 bombing of Tokyo.
The idea of avenging Pearl Harbor by bombing Japan itself had originated in the highest echelons of the navy, but accomplishing it posed a dilemma. The weakened American navy could not allow an aircraft carrier to approach within 400 miles of Japan, lest it be exposed to attack by shore-based Japanese planes. Nor did any standard American carrier plane of the time have the range to fly that distance with a bomb load and continue on to landing fields in China. Implementation of the plan therefore depended on using the Army Air Corps' new two-engine B-25 bomber.
Doolittle was put in charge of the intensive training required in flying such a large plane from the deck of a carrier—there was no possibility of landing on the carrier after completion of the mission—and managed to talk Arnold into letting him lead the attack itself. On April 18, 1942, the 16 planes he commanded flew from the carrier Hornet to bomb assorted targets in Tokyo and a few other Japanese cities and then on to landings in China. Although none of the planes landed intact in China, all but two of the crews reached safety. While some have considered the Doolittle raid, as it became known, strategically unsound in terms of the negligible damage it could inflict upon Japan, it was soon immortalized in the book and film Thirty Seconds over Tokyo and undeniably raised American morale while causing concern to the Japanese.
Doolittle was given a rare double promotion to brigadier general and then was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony. He was sent to Europe to command Dwight Eisenhower's air units during the planned invasion of North Africa, after which Doolittle was promoted to major general. He had been coolly received by Eisenhower, but gradually won his commander's confidence and stayed with him throughout the remainder of World War II in Europe, in succession serving as commander of the Twelfth Air Force in North Africa (1942-1943), the Northwest African Strategic Air Forces, the Fifteenth Air Force during the Mediterranean campaigns of 1943, and, finally, from January 1944, of the Eighth Air Force based in England.
In his early commands Doolittle, who often flew missions himself, had been obliged to develop effective air forces, but the Eighth had already been built into a successful unit by its previous commander, Lieutenant General Ira Eaker. Nevertheless, Doolittle profited from the advent of more and better planes, particularly the P-51 fighter which allowed his forces to achieve air superiority over the heart of Germany itself. A firm believer in strategic bombing, Doolittle commanded the Eighth Air Force during its greatest successes: the first American bombing of Berlin, the sustained bombing campaigns against Germany's oil industry and various manufacturing and rail facilities, and finally the virtual destruction of the Luftwaffe, the German air force.
End of the War
With the end of the war in Europe Doolittle was ordered to Okinawa to establish with new planes and personnel what would in effect be a new Eighth Air Force, but Japan surrendered before it became operational. At 49 Doolittle was the youngest lieutenant general in U.S. service and the only reservist to reach that rank (1944). Believing that he was not the right man to serve in a postwar air force due for retrenchment, Doolittle returned to reserve status in 1946 and resumed work for Shell. He remained a Shell vice president until 1958, taking occasional leave to do public service both for the Air Force and for various government bodies, among them a special board that President Truman named to report on airport safety and location.
After he left Shell, Doolittle settled in Santa Monica, California, served until 1961 as board chairman of the aerospace division of TRW, then joined Mutual of Omaha. He had given up flying in 1961. Although much of Doolittle's career was spent in civilian pursuits, he will always be remembered for his pioneering achievements in aviation in the 1920s, for his successful command of the Eighth Air Force, and particularly for his leadership of the Tokyo raid in April 1942. Doolittle, recalled Arnold, "was fearless, technically brilliant, a leader who not only could be counted upon to do a task himself if it were humanly possible, but could impart his spirit to others."
Doolittle's contributions were recognized and honored by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. In Reagan's Farewell Address to the American People (1989) he said, "We've got to teach history based not on what's in fashion, but what's important: Why the pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant." Later the same year, Doolittle was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bush.
He died on September 27, 1993, at his son's home in Pebble Beach, California, following a stroke earlier that month.
Further Reading on James Harold Doolittle
The best introductions to Doolittle's fascinating life are two biographies: Carroll V. Glines, Jimmy Doolittle, Daredevil Aviator and Scientist (1972) and Lowell Thomas and Edward Jablonski, Doolittle: A Biography (1976). Some of the many changes that took place in aviation during Doolittle's years as a test pilot are related in Harry F. Guggenheim, The Seven Skies (1930). Doolittle's World War II exploits can be studied in many places, among them: H. H. Arnold, Global Mission (1949); W. F. Craven and J. L. Cate, editors, The Army Air Forces in World War II (1948-1958, 7 vol.); Roger Freeman, The Mighty Eighth (1970); Carroll V. Glines, Doolittle's Tokyo Raiders (1964); Ted Lawson (Robert Considine, editor), Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1943); and James M. Merrill, Target Tokyo (1964). A brief description of his aviation accomplishments can be found at the A&E Biography Web site on the Internet at http://www.biography.com (August 4, 1997).