7-min biography: Jimmy Doolittle

A B-25 taking off from the USS Hornet for the Tokyo Raid

I just read “I Could Never Be So Lucky Again,” the autobiography written by General James “Jimmy” Doolittle. I was literally amazed by the things that Jimmy Doolittle accomplished in his lifetime — becoming a world-famous stunt airplane pilot; inventing instrument flying; leading a daring bomber raid on Tokyo that changed the course of World War II; and commanding the Eighth Air Force in England in 1944, supporting the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Doolittle was born on December 14, 1896 in Alameda, CA — but he spent most of his youth in Nome, Alaska, during the gold rush days. His family later moved to LA, where he took up boxing and earned spending money as a teenage prizefighter. He grew up during the very early days of aviation, and became fascinated with airplanes while still in high school. He began to learn flying right around the time of World War I and developed a lifelong passion for aviation. Doolittle dropped out of college at UC Berkeley in 1917, with hopes of becoming an army pilot. He wasn’t able to see combat duty during WWI — instead he was assigned to being a combat and gunnery instructor for other pilots. Like other young men of that era, he was desperate to have his chance to serve his country during the Great War — but he was disappointed that he was “sending other people out to combat instead of going myself.”

During the 1920s, Doolittle finished his undergrad at Berkeley, and also earned a Master’s and PhD from MIT (he earned the first ever doctorate of aeronautical engineering ever issued in the US). His passion for flying led him to take up stunt-flying and he became one of the country’s most famous pilots during the inter-war period. Doolittle racked up a number of awards and set multiple records during this time, including making the first transcontinental flight (from Florida to California) in 1922, for which he earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. One of his greatest contributions to the field of aviation was the invention of “instrument flying,” or “blind flying” as it was also known then. Doolittle developed the technique of relying on gyroscopic instruments to understand position, direction, and speed, and to use this data rather than the pilot’s own visual instincts, to fly and land an airplane under conditions of low visibility (darkness or fog).

Probably Doolittle’s greatest contribution to world history was his leadership of the Tokyo Raiders mission, a surprise aerial attack on the Japanese homeland just months after Pearl Harbor. By the time that the Japanese attacked the US at Pearl Harbor and WWII had begun, Doolittle was in his early forties. He was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel in the Army in early 1942. In the months after Pearl Harbor, the Allies were in dire straits in the Pacific. The US navy suffered devastating losses from Pearl Harbor; the Japanese had taken over the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Wake Island, Guam, and were poised to invade Australia. There were a string of victories for Japan and defeats for the US and Britain. FDR wanted to launch a counter-attack against Japan that would deliver a much-needed morale boost to the Allies.

“Hap” Arnold, the head of the Army Air Forces, called Doolittle into his office in late January 1942, just weeks after Pearl Harbor. He asked the question: “Jim, what airplane do we have that can take off in 500 ft., carry a 2,000-pound bomb load, and fly 2,000 miles with a full crew?” Doolittle, puzzled by the question, did some homework and came back with an answer the next day: the B-25. This conversation set the wheels into motion for the daring Tokyo Raiders mission.

The plan was for squadrons of B-25 fighters to attempt a never-before performed feat: take off from an aircraft carrier with only 500 ft. of runway, fly hundreds of miles to mainland Japan, and bomb the capital — Tokyo. Doolittle was selected to plan and lead the mission. He knew that the mission would be “extremely hazardous,” so he asked for volunteers for the mission. Then, without telling his crews what the exact mission was, he secretly trained them on how to abruptly take off B-25 bombers with 500 ft. of runway — a fraction of what they normally required. After weeks of training, his crews and he himself were ready for the mission.

Doolittle, not having had the opportunity for combat duty during WW I, petitioned to lead the raid himself. He was worried that, given his age and rank within the Army, that his superiors would not allow him to lead the actual mission — just plan it. But after much lobbying from Doolittle to lead the actual mission, they agreed.

James Doolittle fastens a medal on the tail of a 500-pound bomb that he and the crew of 16 B-25 bombers dropped on Tokyo during a surprise raid.

On April 18, 1942, “Doolittle’s Raiders” — led by Doolittle himself, who piloted the lead B-25 bomber — took off from the USS Hornet for their daytime raid on Tokyo. There were 16 B-25 bombers, which had been assigned targets in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, Nagoya, and the Kobe-Osaka complex. The bombers were to deliver their bombs and escape to China, which was friendly to the Allies under Chiang Kai-Shek. The bombers arrived over Tokyo shortly after noon, successfully bombed their targets, and then returned to the sea to escape to China. Japanese defenses were caught by surprise, and the enemy aircraft didn’t have enough time to scramble to attack the US bombers. Most of the B-25 bombers were able to escape to China — however, a couple were shot down and the crews were captured by the Japanese.

Doolittle piloted his B-25 bomber over the China Sea and over to the Chinese coast. However, their B-25 was running low on fuel, and their navigator predicted that they would run out of gas 135 miles from the Chinese coast. Luckily, what had been a headwind miraculously turned into a tailwind for the plane, and they were able to make it to China. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to land at their planned destination, Chuchow, because of the low fuel. After 13 hours of flight covering 2,250 miles, Doolittle and his crew bailed out of their B-25 and parachuted into China. Doolittle landed in a rice paddy and went to a local farmhouse to try to find the rest of his crew. He encountered a group of armed Chinese soldiers, who took him to the rest of his crew. He eventually made it out of China and rejoined his command.

The raid on Tokyo by Doolittle’s Raiders struck a tremendous psychological blow to the Japanese. Until that point:

“The Japanese people had been told they were invulnerable. Their leaders had told them Japan could never be invaded… An attack on the Japanese homeland would cause confusion in the minds of the Japanese people and sow doubt about the reliability of their leaders.”

In addition to the devastating psychological blow, the raid forced Japan to invest more in defense of its homeland by bringing troops and equipment back from its offensive reach to the mainland. Doolittle wrote this about the raid:

“I was flattered to learn how much the American people appreciated the raid on Japan and was pleased to hear through our intelligence sources that the Japanese were withdrawing fighter units from their front lines to defend their home islands, as we had hoped.”

The Battle of Midway, which occurred just six weeks later on June 4–6, 1942, was a disastrous loss for the Japanese. Historians believe that the outcome at Midway was made possible because the Tokyo raid induced the Japanese to over-extend their forces. According to Wikipedia:

“The Doolittle Raid is viewed by historians as a major morale-building victory for the United States. Although the damage done to Japanese war industry was minor, the raid showed the Japanese that their homeland was vulnerable to air attack, and forced them to withdraw several front-line fighter units from Pacific war zones for homeland defense. More significantly, Japanese commanders considered the raid deeply embarrassing, and their attempt to close the perceived gap in their Pacific defense perimeter led directly to the decisive American victory during the Battle of Midway in June 1942.”

For his efforts during the raid, Doolittle was awarded the Medal of Honor. He was promoted two ranks to brigadier general, bypassing the rank of colonel.

Doolittle receives the Medal of Honor from President Franklin D Roosevelt

Doolittle spent the remainder of WWII in Europe, leading the Eighth Air Force in England. The Eighth Air Force supported the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944, and subsequent operations to advance into Germany.

I found it incredibly inspiring to read the story of Jimmy Doolittle — a true American hero, who pioneered aviation in the early part of the 20th century; invented instrument flying; and led a daring aerial raid on the Japanese homeland that changed the course of world history.

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