Gen. James “Jimmy” Doolittle

Doolittle flies over Normandy beaches on D-Day

by Judith Stanford Miller, M.Ed., M.A.

Gen. James “Jimmy” Doolittle is famous for the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo, a raid requested by President Roosevelt in response to Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. On April 18, 1942, sixteen B-25 bombers, each with a crew of five, took off from the USS Hornet knowing they did not have enough fuel to return. The air attack shocked Japan since they did not think America had that capability. Gen. Doolittle led the raid and went on to help plan D-Day.

Student News Net interview with Jonna Doolittle Hoppes, Gen. Doolittle’s granddaughter (Nov. 8, 2014)

“World War II wasn’t won just by the warriors. It was won by the American people together with their Allies.” Jonna Doolittle Hoppes (Student News Net interview at the Yankee Air Museum in Ypsilanti, Mich. on Nov. 8, 2014)

Throughout his long life, he was asked many times to write his autobiography. With Carroll V. Glines, he finally published the story of his amazing life in 1991 when he was 94 years old – I Could Never Be So Lucky Again.

Early life

James “Jimmy” Doolittle was born in California in 1896 but moved to Nome, Alaska when he was four-years-old. His father, a carpenter, had left for Alaska when Jim was just an infant to take advantage of higher wages being paid to carpenters during Alaska’s short-lived Gold Rush.

Jim and his mom stayed in Nome until he was 11 and then moved back to California. Being short for his age forced Jim to learn how to defend himself. Always resourceful, Jim turned that challenge into financial gain when he began winning professional boxing bouts in high school. His mom disapproved.

But it was the disapproval of Josephine “Joe” Daniels, his high school sweetheart, which really mattered. He told her in high school he wanted to marry her. If she agreed, he would one day take her to Alaska.

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Doolittle was a college junior studying engineering, using his brains more than his Word of the Day bravado. Joe – and his mom – approved.

Instead of beginning his senior year in fall 1917, he joined the U.S. Army. He had been interested in aviation since he was a young boy. When he was 15-years-old, he built a glider that did not fly so he decided aviation training within the U.S. Army was a very good deal. It was a decision that would set the stage for an amazing life flying to spots around the world in times of war and peace with Joe by his side for seventy-one years.

James Doolittle and Josephine Daniels were married at City Hall in Los Angeles on Dec. 24, 1917.

James Doolittle, Ph.D. – Aeronautical Engineer
Orville and Wilbur Wright had made the first heavier-than-air flight with a man at the controls on Dec. 17, 1903. By 1909, the Wright Military Flyer was an airplane within the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Innovation in the aviation industry proceeded at a fast clip. Airplanes became another new mechanical weapon of war in the Great War – World War I. Doolittle remained in the United States during World War I training pilots to fly the Curtiss JN-4 or “Jenny” airplane. When the war ended, he stayed in the Army so he could fly planes.


A World War I era “Jenny” is on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. Note the open air seats. (Photo: Student News Net)

Many pilots were killed in the early days of aviation. The 1909 Wright Military Flyer had a maximum speed of just 42 miles per hour but year after year, new planes were being designed and built that flew faster and higher.

Doolittle kept detailed notes on his flights. He wanted to understand every problem he encountered. Although known as a daredevil performing aeronautical acrobatics, he was always prepared for those risks by studying the limits of his airplane.

His early engineering education would now be the springboard for advanced degrees. In 1923, he was accepted in the aeronautical engineering program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT. The school had started its program in 1914.

Dollittle earned both a Master degree and Doctorate degree in aeronautical engineering. He was now a scientist and a pilot.

In 1930 after 13 years in the U.S. Army, Doolittle resigned to take a job with Shell Oil Company at three times the pay of an Army pilot. With a family to support, the decision was not a difficult one. His position with Shell took him all around the world to promote new types of aviation fuels. Airplanes were now flying at maximum speeds of almost 300 miles per hour at altitudes over 30,000 feet.

In the 1930s, he visited Germany and was nervous about what he witnessed after Adolf Hitler came to power.

Doolittle Raid and service during World War II
World War II officially began on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland but its path to war was set many years before. After Poland, Germany quickly dominated Europe. On June 22, 1940, France surrendered to Nazi Germany. Germany was now an occupying force in many countries throughout Europe.

Doolittle asked Shell if he could take a leave of absence. Shell agreed. On July 1, 1940, Doolittle reported for active duty with the U.S. Army. His job was to get the nation ready to fight a war in the skies. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor from the skies and the sea on Dec. 7, 1941, there was a new urgency to his job.

President Franklin Roosevelt wanted the United States to respond to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor by striking their homeland. Colonel Doolittle was put in charge of a raid on Tokyo. A Navy captain thought of the idea of launching a squadron of planes from an aircraft carrier to strike Japan.

On April 18, 1942, Doolittle took off from the USS Hornet in a B-25 bomber with a crew of five men. Fifteen other identical planes took off behind Doolittle for a total of sixteen planes and 80 men. B-25 pilots had less than 500-feet of runway on the carrier.

A Doolittle Raid display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio depicts General Doolittle, right, standing on the USS Hornet before the raid with a B-25 bomber. This B-25 was flown to Dayton in 1959. (Photo: Student News Net)

Each plane dropped four, 500-pound bombs on military targets. In planning the Doolittle Raid, pilots were instructed to land in China. But permission to land in China was never received so each crew was on their own after the raid.

Tragically, eight men were captured by the Japanese and three were executed. In retaliation for Chinese citizens helping the Doolittle Raiders, over 250,000 Chinese civilians were killed by the Japanese up and down the coast of China where the planes landed.

On D-Day, Doolittle flew over the beaches in the morning to assess how the operation was progressing.

For his heroism, Doolittle was awarded the Medal of Honor and promoted. General Doolittle returned to duty and helped plan the 1944 D-Day invasion, the final Allied offensive that eventually brought the war in Europe to an end in 1945.

“I was up before dawn that momentous day and decided to fly a P-38 over the beaches. …..What was most personally satisfying was that hundreds of ships and barges could unload thousands of troops without worrying about enemy aircraft. We had achieved what we had planned and hoped for: complete air supremacy over the beaches.” (p. 374)

After flying for two and a half hours, Doolittle landed and went straight to Eisenhower’s headquarters at Southwick House to report that everything was going smoothly except for Omaha Beach where he saw many landing crafts blowing up. His report was the first report Eisenhower received. “I felt good about that.” (p. 374)

General Doolittle – after World War II and later years
After World War II, General Doolittle strongly advocated for the establishment of the U.S. Air Force as a separate branch of the military.

80 silver goblets (16 rows with five goblets in each row for the 16 planes with five crew) are kept in a case made by General Doolittle’s co-pilot during the Doolittle Raid. The case of goblets is enclosed in a glass case and is part of the extensive Doolittle Raid exhibit at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. Note there are four goblets upright. (Photo: Student News Net)

He never forgot his promise to the Doolittle Raiders to have a party after the raid or his promise to take Joe to Alaska.

In December 1946, the surviving Doolittle Raiders met for a party at Elgin Field in Florida where they had trained for their mission. That party became an annual reunion. Silver goblets, with each man’s name engraved twice so names could be read both right side up (alive) and upside side down (deceased), have been used at each reunion to toast their fallen comrades. Of the 80 men, in 2014, there were four survivors. Their final reunion and toast was held in 2013.

With four goblets upright in 2014, the 80 silver goblets are on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. As of March 4, 2019, there is one goblet upright, that of Richard Cole, Gen. Doolittle’s co-pilot.

In 1949, General Doolittle retired from the U.S. Army, again returning to private life. For the rest of his life he advocated for: 1) a strong military in order to preserve peace so future generations would be spared the horrors of war, and 2) environmental conservation.

In 1973, he finally took Joe to Alaska 60 years after first promising her in 1913!

Quotes by General Doolittle from his autobiography – I Could Never Be So Lucky Again
“One of the privileges of age is the opportunity to sit back and ponder what you’ve seen and done over the years. In my nine-plus decades, I’ve formed some views about life and living that I have freely imposed on trusting audiences, both readers and listeners. I have concluded that we were all put on this earth for a purpose. That purpose is to make it, within our capabilities, a better place in which to live. We can do this by painting a picture, writing a poem, building a bridge, protecting the environment, combating prejudice and injustice, providing help to those in need, and in thousands of other ways. The criterion is this: If a man leaves the earth a better place than he found it, then his life has been worthwhile.” (pp. 538-539)

Joe passed away on Dec. 24, 1988 on their 71st anniversary. The final paragraph in his autobiography is a tribute to her:

“Luck has been with me all my life. Fortunately, I was always able to exploit that luck during my flying years and at each turn in my career. The best thing I ever did was to convince Joe that she should marry me; the luckiest thing that ever happened to me was when she finally did. That’s why, whenever I’m asked, I say that I would never want to relive my life. I could never be so lucky again. Thanks Joe. I couldn’t have done it without you.” (p. 539)

General Doolittle passed away on September 27, 1993. He was 96. He and Joe are buried next to each other in Arlington National Cemetery.

Copyright © 2019 Judith Stanford Miller/Student News Net. No portion of this article can be copied, disseminated, or distributed without the author’s permission.