By Lt. Col. Stephen Clutter , Air Force Print News
/ Published April 17, 2007
SAN ANTONIO (AFNEWS) -- The man the "Doolittle Raiders" are named for may not be a household name today, but James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle was once one of the most famous celebrities in America, even before the raid, and remains one of the most remarkable figures of the 20th Century.
Born in Alameda, Calif., on Dec. 14, 1896, Doolittle spent his youth in Nome, Alaska where he earned a reputation as a "scrapper." He left Alaska with his mother settling in Los Angeles, and attending Manual Arts High School. Though a good student, his early life hardly harkened the greatness to come. His first career was as a prize fighter, frequently fighting under the name Jimmy Pierce.
At five-foot-six and 105 pounds, Doolittle was described as a strong boxer, but he often fought with "rage rather than restraint," according to Dick Alan Daso, who wrote "Doolittle: Aerospace Visionary." Eventually becoming an amateur champ, Doolittle frequently regressed into street brawls, including one which landed him in the Los Angeles County Jail. His mother reportedly left him there for the weekend to teach him a lesson.
After graduating high school in 1914, he spent a year with his father in Alaska, but wound up broke, returning to Los Angeles as a stowaway on a transport ship. He eventually attended the University of California at Berkley, where he was on the boxing and gymnastics teams. He dropped out of Berkley in 1917 to join the Army's Signal Corps to attend pilot training.
Although World War I ended before he could fly in Europe, Doolittle blossomed quickly into an accomplished pilot. He was, however, also gaining an unwanted reputation as a "stunter," and was perceived to be reckless. He once flew his plane through the open doors of a hangar to help mechanics sweep it out. He would also ride on the struts, wing walk, and once, thinking he was playing a practical joke on a friend, roared his motorcycle down the runway, playing "chicken" with the landing aircraft, forcing the pilot to abort his landing. He repeated the stunt a second time. It was then that he realized that the pilot wasn't his buddy, but was his commander. That was one of several stunts that got the young Lieutenant Doolittle grounded.
Despite that rocky beginning, Doolittle matured, settled into family life, and became one of the best pilots in the world. In September 1922, he made the first of his many historic aviation feats, flying the first-ever cross-country flight, from Pablo Beach, Fl. to San Diego in 21 hours and 19 minutes, making only one refueling stop at Kelly Field, Texas. In July 1923, after serving as a test pilot and aeronautical engineer at McCook Field, Ohio, Doolittle entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earning his master's degree in 1924. He went on to get the first Ph.D. in Aeronautics awarded by MIT.
Over the next several years, Doolittle racked up a string of aviation speed and endurance records that made him the equivalent of rock star in his days. He won the coveted Schneider Cup race in a Curtiss R3C in 1925, with an average speed of 232 miles per hour. For that feat, Doolittle was awarded the Mackay Trophy in 1926. He was also the first pilot ever to perform an outside loop, a stunning achievement at the time.
He also helped develop the "artificial horizon" and directional gyroscope and made the first flight completely by instruments. He attracted wide newspaper attention with the "blind" flying feat and later received the Harmon Trophy for his experiments that made all-weather airline operations practical.
In 1930, Doolittle left active duty, but remained a reservist. In 1931, he won the Bendix Trophy Race from Burbank, Calif., to Cleveland in a Laird Super Solution Biplane. In 1932, he set the world's high-speed record for land planes at 296 miles per hour in the Shell Speed Dash. Later, he took the Thompson Trophy Race at Cleveland in the notorious Gee Bee R-1 racer with a speed averaging 252 miles per hour.
After having won the three big air racing trophies of the time, the Schneider, Bendix and Thompson, he officially retired from air racing saying, "I have yet to hear anyone engaged in this work dying of old age." Later, it was reported that Doolittle was incensed to learn that news photographers had staked locations to catch the reaction of his wife and children if he'd crashed the Gee Bee, which had killed many other pilots who had tried to fly it, including the aircraft's designer.
During World War II, Doolittle returned to active duty. By then, he was known as the master of the "calculated risk," applying skill and science to pull off feats that seemed reckless and daring to others. Doolittle was chosen by Gen. Hap Arnold to lead what was known as "Special Mission No. 1," a secret bombing attack on Japan just four months after the attack at Pearl Harbor. The group launched 16 B-25 bombers from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet in the Pacific -- itself an amazing and first-ever feat -- and attacked several Japanese cities before ditching their aircraft in China or the sea.
Of the 80 men who took part in the raid, three were killed during the mission, five were interned in Russia and eight became prisoners of war in Japan. After he had bailed out, Doolittle landed in a field of "night soil," -- dirt mixed with human waste. He tried to take cover from the cold night air in a farm house, but the occupants wouldn't let him in. He eventually escaped the cold and wind by climbing into a coffin waiting to go into the ground. The coffin was occupied.
He received the Medal of Honor for leading the raid and was promoted from lieutenant colonel to brigadier general, skipping the rank of colonel. After commanding 8th Air Force at the end the European campaign, General Doolittle was moving his command to Okinawa to finish the fight with Japan when the war ended.
It's hard for today's generation to realize how famous Doolittle was, but once, while making a bond drive campaign in Los Angeles, more than a million people lined La Cienega Boulevard from the airport to the Hollywood Bowl to welcome the returning hometown hero.
After the war, General Doolittle, now a civilian and the first president of the Air Force Association, devoted his energies to lobby for an independent Air Force. His goal was accomplished in September 1947 when President Truman signed the law, establishing the Air Force and the new Department of Defense.
In March 1951, Doolittle 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. He retired from Air Force duty in 1959 but continued to serve as chairman of the board of Space Technology Laboratories and devoted his time to many other civic and industry endeavors. He died September 27, 1993. He remains the only American to receive both the countries highest military and civilian honors - the Medal of Honor and the Medal of Freedom.
When Doolittle accepted his Medal of Honor after the raid, he did so reluctantly, saying he would accept it on behalf of all the men who took part in the raid, and vowed to spend the rest of his life living up to the honor.
For more information on General Doolittle, you can read the following:
-- I Could Never Be So Lucky Again, by James H. Doolittle, ISBN 0-88740-737-4, ISBN-10: 0553584642
-- "Calculated Risk," by Jonna Hoppes Doolittle, ISBN-10 1891661442
-- "Doolittle: Aerospace Visionary," by Dick Alan Daso, ISBN I-57488-669-X