Doolittle, James Harold (1896-1993)

Photograph of James Doolittle
U.S. Air Force. Via Wikipedia Commons

James Doolittle was born in California and raised in Nome, Alaska, returning to California to attend Los Angeles Junior College and the University of California. He joined the Army Reserve in October 1917 and spent the First World War as a flight instructor. He was commissioned a first lieutenant in 1920 and participated in the first transcontinental flight in 1922. He received a Sc.D. degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1925. (He later noted that the ability to put a "Doctor" in front of his name was exceedingly helpful in working with some sectors of the aviation community.) Frustrated with the conservatism and glacial pace of promotion in the Army, he resigned his commission in 1930 and became the aviation manager for Shell Oil, where he was instrumental in developing the high octane gasoline blends required for high-performance aircraft engines. He was also a cool but daring test pilot, winning both the Harmon and Bendix trophies. He made major contributions to the development of blind instrument flying, and was the first pilot to make a blind landing, in September 1929.

Doolittle returned to active duty in July 1940, where he played an important role in organizing the massive expansion of the Air Corps. Given the rank of major, he drew some resentment from regular officers who had stayed with the service and who he now outranked; but his ability and industrial connections were invaluable to his mentor, "Hap" Arnold.

In April of 1942 Doolittle was ordered to plan a carrier raid on Tokyo using Army bombers. The original inspiration came from a submarine officer on King's staff, but Arnold asked Doolittle to determine whether such a raid was possible. Doolittle determined that the B-25 Mitchell was the bomber most suitable for the operation, and after secret tests confirmed that a trained pilot could launch the bomber from a carrier deck, Arnold ordered Doolittle to train a special squadron of aviators for the operation. Doolittle obtained permission to led the Doolittle Raid personally, and though the material damage inflicted by the raid was slight, the psychological and political impact was enormous. Doolittle was awarded the Medal of Honor on behalf of his flyers and was promoted to brigadier general, skipping the grade of colonel. (He was a lieutenant colonel at the time of the attack.)

Doolittle spent most of the war in the Mediterranean and European theaters, where he adopted the controversial tactic of allowing fighters to seek out and engage the enemy rather than stay close to the bombers. His belief was that the best way to protect the bombers, in the long run, was to destroy the enemy fighters wherever they could be found. Combat statistics tend to bear this view out.

Doolittle brought 8 Air Force to the Pacific in time for the battle of Okinawa in April-July 1945. Postwar he chaired the "Doolittle Board", which heard complaints from disgruntled veterans and recommended reforms to improve the social climate in the armed forces. He returned to the Reserve and his job with Shell in 1946 and continued to serve in important advisory positions even after his retirement in 1959. In 1984 he was honored with promotion to general in the Air Force Reserve, the additional stars being pinned on by Senator Barry Goldwater and President Ronald Reagan. Congress had originally balked on the promotion, but a loophole was found in U.S. law that allowed the President to promote a retired officer.

Doolittle died in 1993 at age 97 as the last remaining senior American commander of the Second World War.

Service record


Born at Alameda

Graduates from Los Angeles Junior College
Second lieutenant     
Completes flight training and is commissioned

Receives Regular Army commission

Completes Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Resigns from Regular Army
Major Recalled to active duty. Assistant district supervisor, Central Air Corps Procurement District
Lieutenant colonel     
Staff, Army Air Forces
Brigadier general

Major general
Commander, 12 Air Force, Bolling Field and Tunisia

Commander, 15 Air Force, Tunisia

Commander, 8 Air Force, England and later Okinawa
Lieutenant general     


Chair, "Doolittle Board"

Retires from active duty
General (retired list)     



Boatner (1996)

Doolittle and Glines (1995)

Dupuy (1992) (accessed 2008-2-16)

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