Jimmy Doolittle Turns 90 : The Man Who Tweaked Japan’s Nose

Associated Press

Gen. James H. (Jimmy) Doolittle still does a pretty good imitation of Winston Churchill, deepening his voice and slowing his speech to that familiar British cadence.

They met weekly when Doolittle commanded the 8th Air Force in England a couple of years after leading the “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” raid, the mission that earned him the Medal of Honor.

“Winston Churchill was one of the two people I admired most in my life,” said Doolittle, who celebrates his 90th birthday today. “The greatest American I ever met was Gen. George Marshall, and that includes a considerable number of presidents.”

The late British prime minister and the U.S. Army chief, he said, “showed humanity, spirituality, intelligence and integrity--all those qualities that we consider most important in a human being.”

Surrounded by souvenirs and memorabilia in a cozy home on the green slopes of Carmel Valley, Doolittle looks back on a life filled with famous people, war heroics, engineering achievement and business success.


He is small in stature at just under 5 feet 6 inches, but still stands straight as a flagpole and speaks with the authority of a man who commanded as many as 90,000 fighting men as head of the 12th Air Force in North Africa, the 15th Air Force in Italy and the 8th Air Force in England and the Pacific.

As a youth he dreamed of becoming a hero, repeatedly taking off in a homemade glider and plopping to the ground. He became a pretty hot flier in the early days of aviation, but his dreams languished in World War I while he reluctantly stayed home at Rockwell Field in San Diego as an Army aerial gunnery and combat instructor.

“I was pretty upset,” he recalled. “My students were going overseas and becoming heroes. My job was to make more heroes.”

He had studied mining engineering in California before the war and afterward switched to aeronautical engineering, earning a doctorate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I went from down here to up there,” he quipped.

The degree set the stage for what Doolittle believes was his most important work.

In the late 1920s, while still with the Army, Doolittle directed the Full Flight Laboratory, which created the artificial horizon and directional gyroscope that allowed pilots to fly “blind” in bad weather.

“I was the pilot in charge of developing all the necessary instrumentation,” he said. “I made the first takeoff flight and landing under the hood, never having seen the ground. I think that advance to aviation was probably the most useful thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Doolittle left the Army shortly afterward in 1930 and joined Shell Oil Co., enabling him to indulge his passion for travel by visiting China.

“I’ve been highly nomadic all my life,” he said. “I was born in Alameda, Calif., but I lived there only until the ripe old age of 3. My dad went first to the Yukon, then to Nome, Alaska, in 1899. I spent the next eight years there, then we moved to Los Angeles.”

Since then, he has been around the world six times, explored the South Pole and flown over the North Pole.

World War II interrupted Doolittle’s business career but not his travels. Back in uniform as a member of the staff of Army Air Corps chief Henry (Hap) Arnold, the 45-year-old Lt. Col. Doolittle was asked to train a crew and equip bombers for a carrier-based raid on Tokyo.

The plan was conceived by Navy Capt. Francis Low two weeks after the Dec. 7, 1941, sneak attack on Pearl Harbor by carrier-based Japanese aircraft. It got the approval of Navy Chief of Staff Adm. Ernest King, Army Chief Marshall, Arnold and, finally, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The twin-engine B-25 was designed to take off on a 5,000-foot runway, but Doolittle modified it to lift off the 450-foot deck of the new carrier Hornet. There would be no return for the bombers since they carried just enough fuel to fly past Japan and land in China.

Doolittle selected a crack crew of volunteers.

Oldest of Group

“I was an antique,” he said. “Everybody on the raid was considerably younger.”

Dr. Robert White, the group’s flight surgeon and a top-turret gunner now retired and living in Palm Springs, says no one was told what the mission was during the training and no one talked about it, but nearly everyone figured out what it would be.

The crew wasn’t worried about it ending up a suicide mission, he said. “We were pretty sure it could be done. We were pretty hot stuff in those days.”

The raid on Tokyo was not designed to inflict serious physical damage. The 16 B-25s, each carrying five-man crews, had only a ton of bombs apiece.

Rather, the United States hoped the surprise attack would boost morale at home while stinging the Japanese and leaving them worried about more such raids. It was hoped they would recall ships on duty in the South Pacific to help protect the home front.

On April 18, 1942, the squadron dropped bombs on Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe, causing negligible damage but shocking a nation that had just been told by its emperor that it could never be attacked.

The raid was welcome news in the United States, and “Little Jimmy” Doolittle became an instant hero.

Ted Lawson, now living in retirement in Chico, Calif., piloted a B-25 nicknamed the Ruptured Duck and chronicled the mission in the best-selling book “30 Seconds Over Tokyo.” MGM turned the book into a 1944 movie starring Spencer Tracy as Doolittle.

The raid achieved its goal. Historian D. V. Glines called the mission “the germ of the beginning of the end of Japanese militarism.”

Japanese Response

Japan responded by striking at Midway, a decision that led to a major American victory and turned the war around.

But when Doolittle first landed by parachute in a Chinese rice paddy after dropping his bombs, he felt like a failure, worried that the mission had not been a success.

“When you do a bombing mission, you like to bring your airplanes home,” he said. “I had scattered mine all over different parts of China.”

Of the 80 men on the mission, eight were captured by the Japanese. Three of those were executed, one died of disease while imprisoned, and four survived nearly 40 months of confinement.

Three Tokyo raiders died of injuries suffered when they crashed or bailed out after the raid. Several other raiders were injured after the mission, including Lawson, whose leg had to be amputated by White.

One crew inadvertently landed in the Soviet Union, which had refused to give permission to use its territory as a landing site, and were held for 13 months.

Many of the surviving raiders still meet every April, lifting silver goblets and drinking toasts of brandy to their fallen comrades.

Doolittle recalled sitting on the wreckage of his plane the morning after he jumped, wondering what had happened.

Thought He Had Failed

“I was very low in my mind,” he said. “I had a Sgt. Paul J. Leonard in my crew and I said, ‘You know what’s going to happen? I’ll be put in Leavenworth prison for having missed the mission.’ ”

Doolittle says Leonard tried to cheer him up by telling him that no matter what happened with the planes, the mission was a success and Doolittle would get the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award. Leonard also asked Doolittle if he could continue to be his mechanic.

“Well, the tears came to my eyes,” Doolittle said. “I said, ‘Son, if you want to be my mechanic, you can be--forever.’ ”

Years later, they were still together in North Africa when Leonard was killed, a moment that Doolittle calls his worst personal tragedy of the war.

“He had taxied my plane over to the other side of the field, to a better place,” Doolittle said. “I saw it there and walked over, and alongside the plane was a bomb crater. I looked all around for my mechanic, and finally saw a hand. The bomb had gone off and his hand with his wristwatch still on was all that was left of that nice boy.”

Doolittle lives quietly now, reading and doing occasional carpentry work with the skills that his father taught him. He has 14 great-grandchildren and will soon celebrate his 69th wedding anniversary with his boyhood sweetheart, Josephine.

He still gets at least a dozen letters a day, many of them from young people and soldiers who served under him, and requests to attend functions or give speeches.

President Reagan made him a four-star general last year and Bob Hope honored him with a show last summer.

“I’m pretty well housebound,” Doolittle said, sounding apologetic. “I have not done anything worthwhile in the last decade.”