Childhood & Early Life
Jimmy Doolittle was born on 14 December 1896 in Alameda, California, to Frank Henry Doolittle and Rosa Cerenah Shepherd.
He spent his early childhood in Nome, Alaska. His father had moved there in 1897 as part of the gold rush. Doolittle, his mother and sister joined him there in 1900.
The family sailed on the steamer ‘SS Zealandia’, which was one of the 30 ships that carried nearly 10,000 people to Alaska during that summer of the gold rush.
Doolittle started his schooling in Alaska. In his spare time, he hunted and learned to box on the streets of Nome. He also worked as a part-time newspaper delivery boy, delivering the ‘Nome Nugget’. He and his mother returned to Lost Angeles in 1908 when he was 11.
During his high school years in Los Angeles, he made a mark as a boxer and gymnast. He won a statewide boxing championship and gave serious thought to becoming a professional boxer.
In 1910, Doolittle’s school attended the ‘Los Angeles International Air Meet,’ held at Dominguez Field. It was here that he saw his first aeroplane.
From 1914 to 1916, he studied at the ‘Los Angeles Junior College’. Following his stint there, he went to the School of Mines at the ‘University of California’ for two years.
In 1917, Doolittle took a break from studies and enlisted as a flying cadet in the Signal Corps Reserve . On March 11, 1918, he was made second lieutenant in the Officers Reserve Corps.
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During the First World War, Jimmy Doolittle worked as a flying instructor. He was keen to serve in the war in Europe, but could not do so because of the truce.
In May 1921, he went on an expedition to Mexico to recover a plane that had crash-landed in the canyon. After finding the plane and learning that it was serviceable, he returned with spare parts and additional crew. He flew the serviced plane back using a makeshift runway created on the canyon floor.
Doolittle attended the Air Services Mechanical School at Kelly Field in Texas, and the Aeronautical Engineering Course at McCook Field, Ohio. He then returned to Berkeley to complete his degree.
The army sent him to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for higher studies in July 1923. He moved with his wife and two young sons to Dorchester and earned a Master’s degree in just a year.
Doolittle continued to study at MIT and got a doctoral degree in aeronautical engineering in June 1925. He was the first doctoral degree holder in aeronautical engineering in the United States.
After completing his education, he worked as a test pilot. He tested both civilian and military planes, and his tenure as a test pilot helped develop instruments that could be used by pilots to fly in whiteout conditions.
In 1930, he left the army to work for the Shell Oil Company. Continuing his pioneering work there, he was credited with aiding the development of the 100-octane aviation gasoline, which became the standard for military aircraft. This advanced fuel helped aircrafts climb higher than enemy aircrafts.
Doolittle rejoined the army as a Major in 1940. In January 1942, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and asked to lead a raid on mainland Japan in retaliation to the Pearl Harbour attacks.
Colonel Doolittle was to lead 16 B-25 bombers from the aircraft carrier, USS Hornet. Their targets were the Japanese cities of Kobe, Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka and Nagoya.
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Before the launch, they were spotted by a Japanese patrol boat. Therefore, they had to launch a day ahead of their schedule, which meant that they would have to fly from a distance of 700 miles instead of 300, as per the original plan.
On April 18, 1942, Doolittle and his pilots flew to Japan to hit their designated targets. The Doolittle raiders managed to bomb the cities, inflicting damage to life and property. Doolittle successfully destroyed a large munitions factory in Tokyo.
After the bombing, the crew flew towards China, as they didn’t have enough fuel to fly back. Having flown constantly for 12 hours, they ran out of fuel. Most of them parachuted to the ground; one landed in Russia, three died in crashes and eight were captured by the Japanese.
Doolittle feared that his decision to launch the raid earlier than planned and the loss of aircrafts and crew would result in a court-martial. However, he was given the ‘Congressional Medal of Honor’. He was also promoted by two grades and made brigadier general.
The Doolittle Raids dealt a psychological blow to Japan. Following the raids, the Japanese realized that their cities were no longer safe. They had to move four fighter groups from the front lines to protect their cities.
In the later last years of war, General Doolittle commanded the 12th Air Force in North Africa and the 8th and 15th Air Forces in Europe. He was made lieutenant general in 1944.
Under his command, the 8th Air Force attacked Germany during 1944 – 45. It downed 10,000 planes, destroyed industrial and military targets in Europe and played a critical role in the unconditional surrender of the Nazis.
After the war, General Doolittle went back to reserve inactive status and rejoined the Shell Oil Company, first as a vice president and then as a director. He retired from the Airforce on February 28, 1959.
In the post-war years, he served in various advisory capacities. He was the president of the Institute of Aeronautical Science; the chairman of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics; and a member of the President’s Scientific Advisory Committee.
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He was interested in America’s Space program and was the Chairman of the board of Space Technology Laboratories.
In 1985, he became the first person in Air Force Reserve History to wear four-stars when he was promoted to full general by US President Ronald Reagan.
Jimmy Doolittle had many firsts to his credit. He set the record for being the first pilot to fly from Florida to California with just one stop. He completed this coast to coast feat in less than 24 hours.
He invented a funnel and tube based “pilot dehydrator” so that he could fly without stopping. This was possibly the first aeroplane toilet.
He was the first pilot to make the Outside Loop, an extremely dangerous aeroplane manoeuvre, which was especially difficult given how primitive planes used to be during those days.
In 1929, he became the first pilot to successfully fly a plane, using instruments in a completely covered cockpit. Using instruments, such as the directional gyro, artificial horizon, sensitive altimeter and radio altimeter, he took off and landed blind.
Family & Personal Life
Jimmy Doolittle married Josephine Daniels on December 24, 1917. They had two sons: James Jr. and John, who both became Air Force Pilots.
James Jr. was an A-27 Invader pilot during World War II. He committed suicide in 1958 at the age of 38.
John Doolittle was a Colonel in the US Air Force. His son and Jimmy Doolittle’s grandson Colonel James H. Doolittle III was the vice commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center in California.
General Doolittle passed away on September 27, 1993 at the age of 96. He had been living in Pebble Beach, California. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia next to his wife who had died five years earlier.