While “Jimmy” Doolittle might be most remembered for his early air raid against Japan during World War II, this general and pilot made some pretty amazing achievements in the aviation world – beyond combat.
Here are ten important things you should know about this famous American aviator…
- His birthday was December 14, 1896.
Born in Alameda, California, James Harold Doolittle spent his early years in Nome, Alaska, before returning to Southern California for schooling. In 1910, while at school, Jimmy saw an airplane for the first time and attended the Los Angeles International Air Meet, hosted at Dominguez Field. Through interested in flying, he attended college at Los Angeles City College and the University of Berkeley.
2. He was a flight instructor during World War I.
In October 1917, he left Berkeley and enlisted in the Signal Corps Reserve to train as a flying cadet. December 24, 1917, he married Josephine E. Daniels, and the couple would have two sons.
By March 1918, Jimmy had commissioned as a first lieutenant in the reserves. He spent the few months that the United States was involved in World War I teaching as a flight instructor at new air bases in Texas, Ohio, Louisiana, and California. He became first lieutenant in the Air Service in July 1920.
3. His aviation accomplishments between the World Wars were record-breaking.
After finishing his degree at Berkeley in 1922, Jimmy pursued aviation and aviation research, becoming one of the most famous pilots in the interwar years. He completed the first cross-country flight from Florida to California, covering the distance in 21 hours, 19 minutes with just one stop to refuel. For this accomplishment, he received the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross.
Jimmy flew in air races and made many high speed record attempts. His successes included the Schneider Cup Race (1925) with an average speed at 232 miles per hour which earned him the Mackay Trophy the following year. After winning the Bendix Trophy for a race from California to Ohio and the 1932 high speed record for a land plane (296 miles per hour), he decided to quit air racing for safety reasons.
In 1927, he became the first human to perform the outside loop maneuver which was believed to be impossible!
4. His research and development changed aviation.
Jimmy Doolittle was more than a stunt pilot. His research and development changed aviation processes. During the 1920’s the military sent him to Air Service Engineering School and Massachusetts Institute of Technology; at MIT, he achieved his master’s degree with research on aircraft acceleration tests for which he received a second Distinguished Flying Cross. In 1926, he left MIT with as a Doctor of Science, earning the first doctorate degree in aeronautical engineering in the United States.
He developed instrument flight procedures, and in 1929, was the first pilot to take off, fly, and land without seeing out the plane’s windows. After developing instrument precision flying, he taught the techniques to upcoming pilots.
5. He served in high ranking positions in the aviation field.
He flew test planes, had special training in high speed flight, and served on the Naval Test Board. He helped oil companies test new aviation gases and advised their industry on aviation developments.
During the spring of 1926, the military sent Jimmy to Chile with a flight demonstration team. There, he managed to break both ankles and still flew his demonstration in a P-1 Hawk with both ankles in casts.
In 1934, he served on the Baker Board for aviation review, and in 1940 presided as President of the Institute of Aeronautical Science. As World War II started in the Pacific and Europe, Jimmy worked with auto factories to develop plans for their industrial plants to produce planes if American joined the war. He represented the U.S. military and government on a trip to Britain where he studied and reported air power advancements and the Allied military equipment.
6. He coordinated and led the first American air raid on Japan during World War II.
The United States entered World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. In January 1942, Jimmy Doolittle, now back in active military service, promoted from major to lieutenant colonel, and began planning the first retaliatory raid against Japan. Japanese military leaders believed their network of navy and air power completely protected their home islands. After-all, the Americans did not have bomber or fighter aircraft with enough range to reach the Japanese islands from any of the Pacific Islands still in Allied hands.
With his experience in aviation and navy flying, Jimmy developed a secret plan to put sixteen B-25 Bombers aboard an aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet. The pilots and crews had practiced short take-offs, but their carrier take off would be their first from an actual carrier deck. Lt. Colonel Doolittle piloted the first bomber off the carrier on April 18, 1942, followed by the others on their surprise mission. The attack objectives were the cities of Tokyo, Kobe, Yokohama, Osaka, and Nagoya, and the aircraft reached their destinations and dropped the bombs. Since the bombers would not have enough fuel to return to the carrier, they flew to China or Russia and bailed out, hoping to meet Allied supporters. Jimmy Doolittle bailed out over China and had a shorter journey to safety than some of his pilots and crewmen, who he worked tirelessly to bring back to the United States.
He received the Medal of Honor for his planning and execution of the raid which now bears his name in the history books.
For his raid on Japan, Jimmy Doolittle received promotion to brigadier general and later in 1942 to major general. During 1943, he served as commanding general of the Northwest African Strategic Air Force, then the 15th Air Force in the Mediterranean. Despite his fame and high rank, he continued flying and making innovations for better military aviation tactics and pilots’ safety.
From 1944-1945, Doolittle commanded the Eighth Air Force (based in England) and promoted to lieutenant general. He implemented new rules, requiring escort fighter planes to remain with bombers to achieved greater air superiority.
8. He encouraged the U.S. Space Program.
After World War II ended in 1945, Jimmy served on military boards and actively supported ground-breaking efforts to start the U.S. Space Program. He worked with Robert Goddard and in 1956 presided over the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.
9. He served in many important positions.
In 1946, Jimmy Doolittle retired from the U.S. military and stayed in the military reserves. he helped to found the Air Force Association as the U.S. Air Force came into official existence as a separate branch of the armed services. He worked to desegregate the military, served as a special assistant to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, worked closely with the Eisenhower administration for aviation advancement and investigation of the CIA. He could have been the first director of NASA, but turned down the offer. In the civilian world, he served with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Corporation for forty years.
In February 1959, he retired from the Air Force Reserve, but remained active and an advisor to the aviation community (military and civilian) until his death on September 27, 1993. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
10. He received many awards and recognition for his military service and aviation accomplishments.
Here is just a short list of some of awards and recognition General Doolittle received:
- Medal of Honor
- Presidential Medal of Freedom
- Distinguished Service Medals (received two)
- Silver Star
- Distinguished Flying Crosses (received three)
- Public Welfare Medal from National Academy of Sciences
- United States Military Academy’s Sylvanus Thayer Award
Military ranks had changed as the U.S. Air Force came into existence and had lowered Jimmy Doolittle’s rank. In 1985, Congress restored his rank and made him a major general on the U.S. Air Force, Retired list.
Perhaps Doolittle’s last name is slightly ironic? This man did so much for the aviation world, the United States, and the World.