“I Am Not A Very Timid Type …”

PrintPrintEmailEmailThe American public, reeling from a series of defeats at the onset of World War II, was thrilled by the dramatic announcement that, on April 18, 1942, a flight B-25 medium bombers had successfully struck Tokyo and other targets on the Japanese mainland. To keep the enemy off-balance rigid security was imposed on the details of the surprise carrier-launched raid. “Shangri-La,” a smiling President Franklin D. Roosevelt replied when asked where the attack had originated. Not until a month later, when the President pinned the Medal of Honor on Lieutenant Colonel James Harold Doolittle, did the public learn the identity of the raid’s leader. The name had a familiar ring to many Americans, for Jimmy Doolittle’s amazing career had made newspaper headlines since 1922. That year the daring young Army aviator became the first pilot to fly across the continent in less than twenty-four hours. Born in Alameda on December 14, 1896, Doolittle had joined the fledgling Army Air Service during World War I. Although he spent the war years as a stateside flying instructor, he quickly established a reputation as one of the nation’s top pilots. His aviation firsts are, like his personal awards and decorations, almost too numerous to mention. A pioneer information stunt-flying, Doolittle was the first credited with an outside loop—a hazardous feat previously considered impossible. As well as being a trained scientist, he was one of the Army’s earliest test pilots, whose death-defying aerial acrobatics at air shows around the world were actually well practiced, carefully calculated exercises designed to foster interest in aviation. Little was known about the precise effects of gravity forces on the body or about the wind-gradient factor until Doolittle published the theses he wrote for his master’s and doctor’s degrees in aeronautical engineering at M.I.T. in 1925 and 1926. As a racing pilot and the holder of many early air-speed records over land and water, Doolittle scored record-breaking victories in the Schneider Cup in 1925, the Bendix Trophy in 1931, and the Thompson Trophy in 1932. In 1926 he received the Mackay Trophy, awarded annually to the country’s outstanding flier. During the 1920’s the Army twice loaned him to the Curtiss Wright Corporation for demonstration flights in South America. And in 1928 he was selected by the Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics to head up that foundation’s Full-Flight Laboratory at Mitchel Field on Long Island, New York. The laboratory’s experiments culminated in September, 1929, when Doolittle, using only the primitive instruments then available, made history’s first blind takeoff and landing. He spent the 1950s as the manager of the Shell Oil Company’s aviation department, vigorously promoting the production and use of ioo-octane fuel, which some aviation historians believe was his most significant contribution to the development of United States air power in World War II. As an Army Reserve major during this period, Doolittle served on numerous inquiry boards, including the 1934 effort to reorganize the Army Air Corps. In 1940 he received a special honor when he was elected president of the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences. That same year he returned to the Army and after the historic Tokyo raid became the commander of the 12th, 15th, and, later, the 8th Air Force, which he led in the assault on Fortress Europa. In May, 1946, Lieutenant General Doolittle left the Army and returned to Shell Oil as a vice president and director. Since his retirement in 1958 as a Shell executive he has maintained an active schedule as a member of various advisory boards and as a director of several insurance companies. He and his wife, Josephine, now live in Santa Monica, a few miles from his sparsely decorated oak-panelled Hollywood office in the Mutual of Omaha Building. There recently Doolittle—fingering scale models of some of the celebrated planes he has flown—swivelled slowly from side to side in his large leather chair and discussed with AMERICAN HERITAGE his years as a pioneer Army aviator.


I suppose the most obvious question to ask a pilot is how did you become interested in aviation?

In the winter of 1909-1910 I saw the first air show that took place on the West Coast at old Dominguez Flying Field, near my home in Los Angeles. I was very impressed with the airplanes of that day, even though they were quite frail and of very little performance. Well, I was at that time an avid reader of Popular Mechanics, which about two years later published an article about how to make a glider with sticks and wire and unbleached muslin. So I made a small biplane glider and took it to a small nearby cliff and jumped. Unfortunately the cruciform tail hit the edge of the cliff, and the glider came down rather abruptly. I wasn’t badly hurt, but the glider was pretty badly broken up. I rebuilt it. Then I tied it to the rear of a friend’s automobile. Using my legs as the landing gear, I ran behind the car as fast as I could and leaped into the air.

What happened?