Most people know the name Jimmy Doolittle for his famous World War II raid on Tokyo that earned him the Medal of Honor, but the Army Air Corps general was a memorable figure long before that. Doolittle set air racing world records in the 1920s and was a revered aeronautical innovator throughout his life. His work and leadership led to many of the air and space technologies the world still uses today.
James Harold Doolittle was born near San Francisco on Dec. 14, 1896. When he was still an infant, his father, Frank, moved to Nome, Alaska, to try to capitalize on the gold rush there. Two years later, he and his mother, Rosa, moved to the frontier to join him.
A Competitor from the Start
Doolittle likely honed his sense of competitiveness and adventure in the wilderness. He was a small boy, so he grew up scrappy and got into fights often to defend himself from bullies. The agility he learned from those fights made him a good gymnast, too.
Doolittle and his mother moved to Los Angeles in 1908, where he continued to show off his fighting skills as a young professional — even becoming an amateur boxing champion in 1912 at the age of 16.
After graduating high school in 1914, Doolittle moved back to Alaska to be with his father, but the change was short-lived. He was penniless within a year, so he made the return trip to L.A. as a stowaway on a transport ship. He enrolled at L.A. Junior College (current-day L.A. City College) before transferring to the University of California, Berkley, where he spent three years studying to be a mining engineer.
By now, World War I was raging in Europe, and Doolittle wanted to be part of the action. He left college in October 1917 during his senior year to enlist as a flying cadet in the Army Reserve. Two months later, he married his high school sweetheart, Josephine Daniels.
On March 11, 1918, Doolittle was commissioned as a second lieutenant into the Signal Corps’ Aviation Section; however, the war ended before he had a chance to fly in action.
In July 1920, Doolittle received his regular commission while he continued to take mechanical and aeronautical engineering courses to be a test pilot. In his early days of flying, he pulled some reckless stunts — including walking on the wings of aircrafts while in flight — that got him grounded a few times. But he eventually settled down and quickly became an accomplished pilot thanks to the tireless practice he put into honing his skills.
His first major feat: In September 1922, he completed the first cross-country flight in a DH-4 Liberty, the only U.S.-built aircraft used in World War I. Doolittle took off from Pablo Beach, Florida, and used his crude navigational instruments to make it to San Diego in 21 hours and 19 minutes with only one refueling stop. The triumph earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross.
That same year, the young pilot received his degree from UC Berkley. In the fall of 1923, he enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under a special program to study advanced aeronautical engineering — the first such course in the country. By June 1925, Doolittle had earned a Master of Science degree and a doctorate in aeronautical engineering. According to MIT, “there were not 100 men in the world who held comparable advanced degrees.”
Aeronautical Achievements Galore
Over the next 15 years, Doolittle accomplished many more pioneering feats that made him a celebrity of his time:
- He trained with the Navy to fly high-speed seaplanes to set air records. In 1925, in a propeller plane equipped with pontoons, he set a record for the fastest seaplane ever flown, racing it at an average speed of 232 miles per hour.
- Doolittle became the first person to perform a maneuver called the “outside loop,” which many aeronautical engineers at the time thought was impossible. It required diving, bottoming out upside-down, then climbing back up to complete the loop.
- In 1926, while performing demonstration flights in South America, Doolittle broke both of his ankles but continued to perform tricky maneuvers in casts. The decision caused injuries that required him to visit Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for treatment when he returned.
- In 1928, Doolittle helped develop the artificial horizontal and directional gyroscopes that are now used almost universally. In September 1929, he used them to complete the first “blind” takeoff, flight and landing.
- In 1930, he left active duty (but remained a reservist) so he could manage the aviation department at Shell Oil Company, where he oversaw aviation tests. Doolittle led the push for high octane fuel, which later was credited for helping British pilots defeat the Germans in the Battle of Britain.
- In 1932, he set the world’s high-speed record for racer airplanes on land going 296 MPH.
- In 1935, Doolittle was transferred to the Air Corps Reserve. He became president of the Institute of Aeronautical Science in 1940.
World War II, Plotting Revenge
By July 1940, war was raging in Europe again, and it seemed imminent that America would join the fight. Doolittle went back on active duty, working with auto manufacturers to convert their plants to produce airplanes that might be needed for war.
Less than a month after the Dec. 7, 1941, attacks, Doolittle was promoted to lieutenant colonel. He was chosen by Army Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold to lead the planning of the first aerial raid on the Japanese mainland — retaliation for Pearl Harbor.
It was a risky operation from the onset. B-25 Mitchell bombers were the only available aircraft that could meet the mission’s extensive criteria. But they would need to fly off a naval carrier with only 500 feet of takeoff space, something a fully loaded B-25 had never managed before. Furthermore, sending several Navy ships within a few hundred miles of the mainland was required for the planes to reach their destinations, and that was a dangerous move.
In preparation, 80 volunteers from the Army Air Force’s 17th Bombardment Group underwent intense training to fly across country, perform short takeoffs, fly at night and practice low-level bombings and aerial gunnery. Norden bombsights used for navigation were replaced with improvised models so the Norden devices wouldn’t fall into enemy hands. Pilots also learned to navigate without radio references or landmarks.
Doolittle volunteered to lead the attack. The plan was to fly from 450 miles off the coast to bomb Tokyo and a few other enemy oil storage facilities, military bases and industrial areas. The bombers would then fly another 1,600 miles to friendly airfields in China to be picked up by Allied forces (officials determined landing back on an aircraft carrier was too difficult at the time.)
However, not everything went as planned.
The Raid & Its After-Effects
On April 18, 1942, 16 B-25 bombers took off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, but they did so from 650 miles out — 200 miles further away than planned — after encountering an enemy patrol boat that could have given away their position.
After dropping their bombs, the 16 aircrews quickly realized that they weren’t going to make it to their Chinese destinations. All but one ditched their planes at sea, bailed out or crash-landed in Japanese-occupied China. The remaining B-25 diverted to Vladivostok, Russia, despite being told not to do so.
Doolittle bailed out and landed in a rice paddy near Chu Chow, China. He was fortunately retrieved by friendly forces, but that wasn’t the case for all the men on the mission. According to the Air Force, three died during the landings. The five men who landed in Russia were interned there for about 13 months. Eight more were captured by the Japanese; of those men, only four survived to see the end of the war.
While the raid didn’t cause a lot of physical damage, there were extensive psychological effects. For the Allies, it was a big morale boost. For Japan, fear of more attacks spread. Japanese military leaders called some of their combat forces back to provide defense at home, and they ordered an attack on the U.S. base on Midway Island — a battle that was a pivotal turning point for the U.S. on the Pacific front.
Doolittle was advanced two ranks to brigadier general one day after the attack. A month later, he received the Medal of Honor from President Franklin D. Roosevelt during a White House ceremony. Doolittle accepted it on behalf of all the “Doolittle Raiders,” as they became known, and vowed to the spend the rest of his life living up to the honor.
While the accolades kept coming, the war didn’t stop, and neither did Doolittle. In September 1942, he became the commanding general of the 12th Air Force in North Africa. Two months later, he was promoted to major general. By January 1944, he was commanding the 8th Air Force in Europe before taking the unit to the Pacific, where they finished out the war. During that time, Doolittle received his third star to become lieutenant general.
The Later Years
After the war, Doolittle helped organize the Air Force Association and was elected its first president. He also lobbied successfully to make the Air Force its own branch of the military. In May 1946, the general reverted back to inactive reserve status and returned to Shell as its vice president and, later, director. In 1951, Doolittle was appointed as a civilian to be a special assistant to the Air Force chief of staff for science matters — work that helped lead to Air Force ballistic missile and space programs.
Doolittle officially retired from duty on Feb. 28, 1959, but he continued to work on related endeavors. He served as chairman of the board of Space Technology Laboratories. He was also appointed to MIT’s board of trustees and remained active in its affairs throughout his life.
In 1985, at age 88, Doolittle was given full general status by Congress. The honor made him the first person in Air Force Reserve history to wear four stars. In 1989, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, becoming the first and only American to earn both the country’s highest military and civilian honors.
Doolittle died on Sept. 27, 1993, at age 96 after suffering a stroke earlier that month. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Doolittle was survived by his two sons, James. Jr. and John. Both men followed in their dad’s footsteps by becoming Air Force officers.
Doolittle’s name remains one of the more famous names of the modern military era. In the decades since World War II, several books have been written about the raid and the man himself, including his autobiography, “I Could Never Be So Lucky Again.” Several movies also touched on the raid, including the more recent 2019 film “Midway.”
The General James Doolittle Award is awarded by MIT, while his name adorns several streets and facilities at U.S. Air Force bases across the country.
In May 2014, President Barack Obama awarded all 80 of the Doolittle Raiders the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of their service. The medal is housed at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
The last of the Doolittle Raiders, Air Force Col. Richard Cole, died at the age of 103 in April 2019.
This article is part of a weekly series called “Medal of Honor Monday,” in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.