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James Harold Doolittle

James Harold Doolittle

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."

Presidential Honors

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

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 TokyoRaiders (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). □

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Doolittle, James Harold

James Harold Doolittle, 1896–1993, American aviator, b. Alameda, Calif. After serving in World War I as a flier he returned to school and earned a Sc.D. from MIT. He then became noted for his speed flying (world record, 1932) and also engaged in commercial aviation as the head of Shell Oil's aviation department. In 1940 he was recalled to the U.S. Army Air Corps. Doolittle commanded the first bombers that raided (Apr. 18, 1942) Tokyo and other Japanese cities from the aircraft carrier Hornet. He later headed the North African Strategic Air Forces and led the 8th Air Force in its massive attacks on Germany. In 1945 he resigned from the Army with the rank of lieutenant general to return to business. He retired in 1959.

See biographies by Q. J. Reynolds (1953, repr. 1972), C. V. Glines (1972), and L. Thomas and E. Jablonski (1976).

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Doolittle, James Harold

Doolittle, James Harold

(b. 14 December 1896 in Alameda, California; d. 27 September 1993 in Pebble Beach, California), aviator, engineer, air force commander, and war hero whose career spanned aviation’s first century.

The only child of Frank H. Doolittle and Rosa C. Shepherd, James Harold Doolittle spent his early childhood in Nome, Alaska, while his father, a carpenter by trade, prospected for gold. As a teenager, he returned with his mother to California and became interested in boxing. After achieving success as an amateur, he occasionally fought for money at various boxing clubs under the name Jimmy Pierce. He even held his own in an exposition bout against World Bantamweight Champion Kid Williams. Following graduation from Manual Arts High School in 1914, he spent several months in Alaska trying his luck at prospecting before returning to California. In 1915 Doolittle registered at Los Angeles Junior College and two years later entered the University of California School of Mines. To earn money, he worked summers in the mines and continued to fight professionally. His quickness and toughness in the ring might well have earned him notoriety had it not been for the entreaties of both his mother and his girlfriend.

With the entry of the United States into World War I, Doolittle enlisted as a flying cadet in the Army Signal Corps Reserve. He attended the School of Military Aeronautics at the University of California, and then Rockwell Field in San Diego, California, for flight training. He soloed after seven hours and four minutes of flight training instruction. Despite witnessing numerous accidents, many of them fatal, he retained his love of flying. After becoming a second lieutenant in the Signal Corps Reserve, Aviation Section, on 11 March 1918, he was assigned to a series of places, including Camp Dick, Texas; Wright Field, Ohio; Gerstner Field, Louisiana; and as a flight and gunnery instructor at Rockwell Field. His commander refused his frequent requests for an overseas assignment, and his hope for a war zone tour was shattered by the armistice of November 1918. One positive aspect of his California assignment was that it stationed him near his wife, Josephine (“Joe“) Daniels, his high school sweetheart, whom he had married on 24 December 1917. She would remain his wife for seventy-one years in a union that produced two sons.

Doolittle’s love of flying prompted him to stay in the air service after the war. A series of assignments in the Southwest followed. After a tour at Kelly Field, Texas, he flew border patrol for the Ninetieth Aero Squadron, stationed at Eagle Pass, Texas. In July 1920 he transferred back to Kelly Field to the Air Service Mechanics School. His promotion to first lieutenant in the air service, regular army, decreased his chances of being cut from the service when only reserve officers were being mustered out. At Kelly he received firsthand instruction from top-notch teachers, and he worked directly on the airplanes and the engines. After assignment to McCook Field in Ohio, he was able to convince the chief of the air service, General Mason M. Patrick, to let him attempt a cross-country flight in less than a day. On 4 September 1922 Doolittle took off from Pablo Beach, Florida. After enduring bad weather, weariness, a paucity of cockpit instrumentation, and a single thirty-minute fuel stop in San Antonio, Texas, he landed at Rockwell Field in San Diego, in an elapsed time of twenty-two hours and thirty minutes (a total flying time of twenty-one hours and nineteen minutes). Doolittle gained instant celebrity for his record flight.

In 1922 Doolittle earned a B.A. degree from the University of California, and in October 1923 he entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for special engineering courses, earning an M.S. degree the following year. After Doolittle was admitted to a doctoral program at MIT, the army recalled him to McCook to pursue hazardous structural flight testing of a new experimental Fokker fighter. Doolittle flew the aircraft in a series of difficult maneuvers at various speeds to the very limit of its structure and survived a near in-flight failure. For his efforts he received the Distinguished Flying Cross. In addition, his work and resulting test data helped him earn a doctorate in aeronautics from MIT in 1925. That same year, he won the Schneider Cup race in a Curtiss R3C-2 float biplane, bettering both domestic and international competitors at an average speed of 232.573 miles per hour over a straightaway course. At the age of twenty-eight, Doolittle was considered by other aviators to be the most experienced and best educated test pilot in the United States.

During the second half of the decade, Doolittle pursued his interest in aeronautical science and engineering. He took several leaves of absence from the army and headed for Latin America, where he flew many dangerous demonstration flights for various U.S. aviation companies. In addition, he worked on flight instrumentation and blind flying at Mitchel Field’s Full Flight Laboratory in New York. At that time, accidents often occurred because pilots could not fly by instruments or did not trust them. Doolittle believed that flying in inclement weather could be mastered if the improvements in aircraft design, flight and navigation instruments, and radio communication could be coordinated. On 24 September 1929 he made the first such “blind flight,” using just these tools—the Kollsman precision altimeter, the Sperry gyrocompass, the Sperry artificial horizon, and rudimentary radio navigation aids. The flight encompassed ten months of planning and was perhaps the most important demonstration since the Wright brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. It did much to ensure the rapid expansion of U.S. commercial aviation, which depended upon the integration of advanced aircraft designs, airway developments, and the emergence of innovative avionics and instrumentation systems.

In February 1930 Doolittle decided for financial reasons to resign from the Army Air Corps to work for Shell Oil Company. He successfully applied for a commission as a major in the Air Corps Reserve. At Shell he coordinated the company’s aviation departments in San Francisco, St. Louis, and New York City. He also kept the company in the public’s eye by continuing to participate in air shows and races. Doolittle’s work as aviation manager for Shell Oil Company in supporting the development of high-octane fuels resulted in the Army Air Corps standardizing 100-octane fuel by mid-1936. As a result, when war began in Europe in 1939, the United States was the only nation capable of producing large quantities of 100-octane (or higher) fuel—up to 650,000 gallons per day by mid-1940. Meanwhile Doolittle kept his hand in flying. In 1932 the Granville brothers of Springfield, Massachusetts, invited Doolittle to fly the Gee Bee R-l racer in the Thompson Trophy Race in Cleveland, which he won with a record speed for the race of 252.287 miles per hour.

In January 1940 Doolittle was appointed president of the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences. In that post, he emphasized to college students the importance of applying the best minds to solving the problems of aeronautics. But he wanted to do more, so as World War II began, he requested recall to active duty. His old friend, and now commanding general of the Army Air Corps, General Henry (“Hap“) Arnold, granted his request. On 1 July 1940 Doolittle returned to active duty and went on an inspection and study trip to Great Britain in 1941. On his return, he tested new aircraft like the B-26 Marauder and recommended that the aircraft remain in production.

In early 1942 the United States, still tormented by the shock of Pearl Harbor and the continuing succession of Japanese victories, needed some type of victory to raise morale. To effect this, a scheme was concocted to have army B-25 bombers take off from the navy aircraft carrier Hornet and attack the Japanese mainland. Arnold, now commanding general of the Army Air Forces, chose Doolittle to lead the air strike. Colonel Doolittle set about to supervise the training of his volunteer crews and the modification of their B-25s to obtain maximum range. His crews, who had never taken off from a carrier deck, knew nothing about the mission until they were far out to sea. On the morning of 18 April 1942, the Japanese observed the carriers Hornet and Enterprise, compelling Doolittle to schedule the raid a day earlier and at a greater range from their targets. All sixteen B-25s dropped their bombs, but as a consequence of the 150-mile extended flight path all but one aircraft, which landed in the Soviet Union, ran out of fuel and went down in Japanese-occupied China. Of the eighty crewmen, seventy-one survived, one died, and eight were captured. The Japanese executed four of the captured American airmen as war criminals; the others survived cruel treatment and were freed at the war’s end. Most of the pilots, including Doolittle, maneuvered their way to friendly lines. Unfortunately, the Japanese subsequently executed many of the Chinese peasants who had assisted Doolittle’s raiders. While the actual damage of the Doolittle raid was slight, the psychological effect on the Japanese was significant: their army and navy had failed to protect their homeland. In June, Japanese strategists decided to attack Midway Island, where they lost four large carriers and one cruiser. One of the decisive battles in human history had taken place because of Doolittle’s action. Doolittle was made a brigadier general following the raid and received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Promotion to major general soon followed.

After briefly commanding the Fourth Bombardment Wing (Medium) of the Eighth Air Force stationed in England in July 1942, General Doolittle took over the Twelfth Air Force for the invasion of North Africa. By D-Day, 8 November 1942, Doolittle, who had never commanded a unit larger than a squadron, controlled a force of over 1,244 aircraft and twelve groups, with seventy-five percent of the personnel either untrained or partially trained. Doolittle was transferred again on 18 February 1943, to command the Northwest African Strategic Air Forces (NASAF). This heavy bomber force concentrated on bombing Axis shipping. Within two months, the NASAF had succeeded in cutting off the Nazis in Tunisia. Doolittle flew at least six combat missions during this period.

After Tunisia, Doolittle directed the NASAF through Pantelleria, Sicily, and Italy. His forces bombed Rome and participated in the Regensberg and Schweinfurt raids. When the Fifteenth (Strategic) Air Force was established at Foggia, Italy, in October 1943, its mission was to bomb Germany. Doolittle and his heavy bombardment wings transferred from NASAF and formed the core of this new air force. As the first commander of the Fifteenth Air Force, Doolittle commanded eleven groups of fighters and bombers with 930 combat aircraft and over 20,000 men. But before he could begin serious operations, he received orders to go to England.

During his thirteen months in the Mediterranean theater, Doolittle had to quickly absorb the fundamentals of managing huge units. In so doing he refined some of the new tactics employed by his units. He encouraged his fighters to employ loose escort, instead of close escort, of bomber formations and encouraged escorts to be more aggressive. His performance impressed the supreme Allied commander in Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who in January 1944 gave Doolittle command of the “mighty” Eighth Air Force, the largest and most prestigious numbered air force with no fewer than twenty-six heavy bomber groups, twelve fighter groups, 42,000 combat aircraft, and 150,000 personnel. Doolittle changed the role of his fighters from one of escort to one of killer, allowing his fighters to go after the German fighters instead of waiting for the enemy to come to them. This change in policy soon gave the Allies air superiority over Europe. After V-E Day and a brief respite in the United States, Doolittle moved out with his Eighth Air Force to the Pacific and was present for the unconditional Japanese surrender on the battleship Missouri on 2 September 1945.

After World War II, Doolittle worked hard to promote a separate air force, making speeches and testifying before Congress. In 1947 he helped found the Air Force Association and became its first president. After resigning from the army air forces, he retained his reserve status and went back to his job at Shell as a vice president and, in April 1946, director, holding the latter position until 1967. He retired from the air force reserve as a lieutenant general in 1959, the only reserve officer to retire at that rank. In 1985 President Ronald Reagan and Senator Barry Goldwater pinned Doolittle with his fourth star, promoting him to full general.

In the postwar period, Doolittle served as a member of the Joint Congressional Aviation Policy Board, as an adviser to the Committee on National Security Organization, and as a member and chairman of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. He made several trips to Korea during the Korean War as a consultant for Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Hoyt S. Vandenberg. From his various advisory roles to the air force and to other agencies of the government while representing Shell, Doolittle knew the organization and functioning of the air force’s ballistic missile program. It was for this reason that he agreed to become the chairman of the board as well as the director of Space Technologies Laboratories.

Doolittle became the proverbial “wise man” of every phase of aviation and aerospace science, whose counsel was consistently sought. Prior to his retirement from Shell, he and his wife, Joe, suffered a severe personal tragedy in 1958 with the baffling suicide of their eldest son, thirty-seven-year old Jim Jr., then a major in the air force. Despite this painful loss, they recovered and rebounded. Doolittle became a director of the Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company. His beloved Joe died on 24 December 1988, their seventy-first wedding anniversary. Honors would continue to follow him, culminating with the Presidential Medal of Freedom presented to him by President George Bush in 1988. This pioneer of aviation and man of many talents and accomplishments died peacefully in his sleep in Pebble Beach at the age of ninety-six. He was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., in an elaborate ceremony reserved for dignitaries and top officers that included a twenty-one-gun salute and a flyover by eleven aircraft.

The private papers of Doolittle, including his personal correspondence, film and photographs, and copies of his published scientific research, as well as his famous desk and chair, are held at the James H. Doolittle Library, University of Texas at Dallas History of Aviation Collection. Doolittle’s autobiography isI could Never Be So Lucky Again, written with Carroll V. Glines (1991). Biographies include Thomas Lowell and Edward Jablonski, Doolittle: A Biography (1976), and Carroll V. Glines, Jimmy Doolittle: Master of the Calculated Risk (1980). Finally, a superb appraisal of his aeronautical and engineering exploits can be found in the winter 1993 issue of Air Power History, which, on the occasion of Doolittle’s death, dedicated the entire issue of seven articles to the pioneer aviator. An obituary is in the New York Times (29 Sept. 1993).

George M. Watson, Jr.

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