Born on December 14th, 1896, James Harold (Jimmy) Doolittle was a towering, but controversial figure in 20th century US aviation annals. He was a Reserve officer in the United States Army Air Corps prior to the outbreak of World War II but was then recalled to active duty soon after the war commenced.
Jimmy Doolittle – Aviation Titan
Doolittle broke numerous aviation records, pioneered new techniques and strategies and was heavily decorated for his many achievements across a range of activities.
Whilst still at school and at the age of 14, he saw his first aeroplane at an ‘Air Meet’ in 1910 at Los Angeles. That began a life-long association with aviation throughout which his achievements and stature only grew larger with every passing year.
College (University) Education – 1914 to 1917
After graduating from Manual Arts High School Doolittle attended Los Angeles City College and then UCLA Berkeley where he was studying engineering and science in 1917.
Signal Corp Reserves – 1917 to 1920
In 1917 he took a leave of absence from his studies to enlist in the Signal Corps Reserves. Doolittle did ground training and then flight training in California and then was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the Signal Officers Reserve of the US Army in 1918.
For the remainder of World War One, he served as a flight instructor in the US in various locations. He was also a flight leader and gunnery instructor. At the end of WWI, he was recommended for entrance into the Regular Army which occurred in 1920.
Regular Army and further studies – Early to mid-1920s
In 1920 Doolittle sat and passed the admission examinations and was enlisted in the Regular Army. He would move back and forth between the Regular and Reserve status throughout his career.
He studied at Air Service Mechanical School at Kelly Field and took the Aeronautical Engineering Course at McCook Field, Ohio. He continued his university studies and completed a Bachelor of Arts at UCLA in 1922.
Having finally completed his degree, Doolittle continued his studies at the Air Service Engineering School in Dayton, Ohio and after 12 months was sent to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he took an advanced degree in aeronautical engineering, achieving his Master of Science in Aeronautics in 1924.
The studies and tests associated with his master’s thesis led to him being awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for his work. Not content with that, Doolittle immediately commenced his Doctor of Science in Aeronautics and graduated in 1925 with the first-ever doctorate in aeronautical engineering issued in the United States.
Instrument Flight Pioneer – 1922 to 1929
In the period between the two world wars, Doolittle made quite a name for himself as a pioneering aviator. In 1922 he flew a De Havilland DH-4 fitted with early navigation equipment from Florida to California and back.
It was one of the first cross-country flights that had been conducted largely on instruments and for this achievement, and the tests and associated studies, the US Army awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross. (He would retire with no less than three DFCs…)
He was the first person to recognise and study the human limitations involved in operating aircraft in low visibility conditions. His research led to programs that would train pilots to correctly interpret their instruments.
Putting his research into practice, in 1929 he became the first person to take off, fly and land an aeroplane solely on instruments. He developed and was the first person to test-fly the now-accepted basic flight instruments known as the Artificial Horizon (AH) and the Directional Gyro (DG).
He was awarded the Harmon Trophy for his work on what was then known as ‘blind flying’. The work that Doolittle did make modern-day all-weather airline operations possible.
Daring Exploits – 1925 onwards
In 1925 Doolittle received special training in high-speed seaplanes and served on the Naval Test Board in Long Island, New York. He won the Schneider Cup in 1925 and was awarded the Mackay Trophy for that achievement.
Between 1925 and 1927 Doolittle was known for his air-speed record attempts, aerial manoeuvers and demonstration flights, including in South America, where in one incident he broke both ankles. He completed his demonstration tour flying his Hawk P-1 with both ankles in casts.
On his return to the US, he was confined to Walter Reed Hospital for some months before later becoming the first person to perform an outside loop in 1927, a manoeuver that was not previously thought possible.
Return to Reserve Status – 1930 onwards
Doolittle resigned his Regular commission in 1930 and returned to Reserve duties as a Major, taking a job with the Shell Oil Company.
In that role, he conducted a wide range of tests on different aviation fuel mixtures and additives. He encouraged Shell to create a 100-Octane fuel, which was necessary for the higher performance engines that were under development.
More Daring Exploits
Not content with his earlier achievements in the cockpit of aeroplanes, Doolittle won the inaugural Bendix Trophy race in 1931 and the following year set the world speed record for land-based aeroplanes at 296 miles per hour.
Later he won the Thompson Trophy race and then, with all three major trophies under his belt, retired from air racing, deciding that the risks he was taking were no longer warranted.
The late 1930s
In 1934 Jimmy Doolittle was selected as a member of what was known as the ‘Baker Board’ with the task of reviewing the organisational structure of the Army Air Corps. In 1940 he became the president of the Institute of Aeronautical Science.
Return to Regular Service
By now World War Two had broken out and in 1940 Doolittle returned to active duty with the US Army Air Corps.
He was given the rank of Major and was assigned to the task of getting the major automobile manufacturers in the US to convert their car plants to aircraft production.
Later he travelled to England to gather information about the makeup of other countries air-forces in terms of scope, scale and equipment.
The raid on Pearl Harbor took place in December 1941 and a few months later Doolittle was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and then assigned to US Army Headquarters where he was involved in planning a retaliatory strike against the Japanese.
Doolittle volunteered to lead the raid and General Arnold approved not only the plan for the raid but Doolittle as it’s leader. A total of 16 Mitchell B-25 medium bombers would embark on the USS Hornet aircraft carrier, sailing towards Japan.
In April 1942 they launched on a one-way mission to bomb Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Yokohama and Kobe. Seven men lost their lives and the remainder landed or bailed out over China or Russia at night.
Luckily for Doolittle, he landed in a rice paddy, or he may have broken his weak and previously-injured ankles. He and most of the crews were repatriated through Japanese lines with the help of friendly Chinese forces.
For this achievement, Doolittle was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The raid lifted the morale of US troops and caused the Japanese to relocate some front-line fighter units from the Pacific theatre back to Japan for the defence of the Japanese homeland.
World War II service
Following the raid, Doolittle was promoted two levels at once and was now a Brigadier-General. He became commander of the 12th Air Force in North Africa where he led combat missions and was awarded four Air Medals.
In July 1942 he was assigned to the newly formed Eighth US Air Force and in September became the commanding general of the Twelfth Air Force in North Africa. A mere two months later he was promoted again, this time to the rank of Major General.
Further promotions followed and in September 1943 Doolittle led a particularly devastating raid against the Italian town of Battipaglia.
Doolittle took command of the Fifteenth Air Force in the Mediterranean theatre in late 1943 and then assumed his largest command to date as Lieutenant-General of the Eighth Air Force in England, beginning in January 1944 and ending a month or so after the end of the war. His rank was the highest ever achieved by a reservist who had been called to active duty.
Standard ‘combat box formations’ allowed allied bombers to mass their gun’s firepower against marauding German fighters while concentrating bombs on target. Escorting fighters, initially, the P-38 Lightning and P-47 Thunderbolt were tasked with remaining close to the bombers at all times.
Doolittle felt that these tactics prevented the allied fighters from taking the fight to the enemy, literally. He allowed the fighters to range far ahead of the combat box formations and take the German fighters head-on, clearing the way for the following bombers.
Not only that, the fighters were then free to look for targets of opportunity to attack and strafe on their return to base. Although many service personnel were scathing of Doolittle and accused him of sentencing bomber aircrew to certain death, the tactics proved to be successful.
Doolittle had met Robert Goddard – the father of US spaceflight – in the 1930s and had worked with him during his time at Shell on the development of rocket fuels. In 1938 Doolittle was given a tour of Goddard’s facilities and workshops at the Roswell air base and was very impressed.
After the war ended Doolittle spoke of the ‘tremendous potential’ of rocketry and the possibility of interplanetary travel.
In 1951 Doolittle was appointed to the Chief of Staff of the US Air Force as a Special Assistant. He contributed to the technical discussions that led to the Air Force eventually forming ballistic missile design and test programs and also, sometime later, that led to the creation of the US space program.
In 1956 he was appointed as the chairman of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, serving in that role until 1958.
Whilst at NACA Doolittle formed a Special Committee on Space Technology which chose a number of luminaries such as Werner Von Braun to advise the body on the best way to develop a national space program, including the technologies that needed to be created.
In 1958 NACA was renamed to NASA – the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the US space program was now officially in place and advancing at a rapid pace. Doolittle was offered the job as the first chairman of NASA but declined the role.
Back to Reserve status
In 1946 Doolittle returned to inactive reserve status in the Army Air Force as a Lieutenant General, which was considered a very high rank for a reserve officer. He retired from the regular US Army and once again took a role with the Shell Oil as a vice-president and later as a director.
In 1946 Doolittle was dispatched to Stockholm where he was consulted in respect of the ‘Ghost Rockets’ which had been seen in their hundreds over Scandinavia and were thought variously to be meteors, Russian rockets or UFOs.
He remained on inactive reserve status with the US Army Air Force, which later became the US Air Force in 1947. The same year he became the first president of the Air Force Association, which he had helped to create.
Up until that time, the US military had segregated service members on the basis of race. In 1948 Doolittle urged the military to begin the process of desegregation, since industry was already in the process of doing so, and Doolittle considered it inevitable.
I assume (but don’t have any references) that he felt that it was also, obviously, the right thing to do, or better yet, that it should never have happened in the first place.
The 1950s and onwards
Any mere mortal would have been satisfied with these numerous achievements, but Doolittle was not done yet.
In 1952 President Harry Truman appointed Doolittle to lead a commission to examine safety at larger airports. The resulting report led to zoning requirements around US airports as well as some of the first noise requirements.
These are now commonplace in the form of ‘noise abatement’ procedures that are implemented in the airspace surrounding major airports around the world.
Around this time Doolittle was appointed as a life member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology board of trustees.
In 1954 another president, this time Dwight D. Eisenhower, asked Doolittle to conduct a study of the Central Intelligence Agency. The resulting Doolittle Report was produced in 1954 and remained classified for many years.
Following this, Doolittle served on the President’s Board of Consultants on foreign intelligence activities in 1956.
Finally, in 1959, Doolittle retired from Air Force Reserve duty, but remained active in other roles, including as chairman of the board of TRW Space Technology Laboratories.
The many awards and decorations throughout Doolittle’s illustrious career include:
- Medal of Honor
- Distinguished Flying Cross x 3
- Presidential Medal of Freedom
- Distinguished Service Medal x 2
- Silver Star
- Bronze Star Medal
- Air Medal x 4
- Public Welfare Medal
- Sylvanus Thayer Award
- Motorsports Hall of Fame (for air racing)
- Aerospace Walk of Honor
- Decorations from Belgium, China, Ecuador, France (2 decorations including the Legion of Honour), Great Britain, Bolivia, Morocco and Poland
- Schneider Cup
- Mackay Trophy
- Bendix Trophy
- Thompson Trophy
Several Air Force buildings are named after Jimmy Doolittle. In 1985 he was awarded the rank of four-star general on the US Air Force Retired List by President Reagan.
The great man died in 1993 at the age of 96, having seen 18 US presidents in his long life. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetary next to his wife Josephine. They were married for over 70 years.
Learn more about the man
Books about James Doolittle
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