General James H. Doolittle, United States Air Force, was a military officer noted for his record-breaking civilian flights and air racing victories, but is forever linked to one of the most audacious military actions during World War II: the air raid over Japan on April 18, 1942 that bears his name.
James Harold Doolittle was born in Alameda, California, on December 14, 1896. After graduating from high school in Los Angeles, he received his higher education at the Los Angeles Junior College and the University of California. He enlisted in the Army's Signal Corps Reserve in October 1917, received flight training and was commissioned in March 1918. During the First World War, Lieutenant Doolittle instructed Air Corps students in aerial gunnery and tactics.
During the 1920s, Doolittle's military aviation achievements made him famous. He made a record-breaking transcontinental flight in September 1922; won the Schneider, Bendix and Thompson air racing trophies; and played an important role in the development of instrument flying. In addition to flying exploits, in mid-decade he obtained Master of Science and Doctor of Science degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Doolittle left Army Air Corps (as the Air Force was known prior to being established as a separate branch in 1947) active service in 1930, though he remained active as a Reserve officer. Working in private industry, he was instrumental in improving aviation fuels and became the president of the Institute of Aeronautical Science in 1940. In July of that year, he returned to active duty with the Air Corps, subsequently working to convert the automobile industry to military production.
The Doolittle Raid
The raid had its roots in a chance observation that it was possible to launch Army twin-engined bombers from an aircraft carrier, making feasible an early air attack on Japan. Appraised of the idea in January 1942, U.S. Fleet commander Admiral Ernest J. King and Air Forces leader General Henry H. Arnold greeted it with enthusiasm. Arnold assigned the technically-astute Doolittle to organize and lead a suitable air group. The modern, but relatively well-tested B-25B "Mitchell" medium bomber was selected as the delivery vehicle and tests showed that it could fly off a carrier with a useful bomb load and enough fuel to hit Japan and continue on to airfields in China.
Gathering volunteer air crews for an unspecified, but admittedly dangerous mission, Doolittle embarked on a vigorous program of special training for his men and modifications to their planes. The new carrier USS Hornet was sent to the Pacific to undertake the Navy's part of the mission. So secret was the operation that her Commanding Officer, Captain Marc A. Mitscher, had no idea of his ship's upcoming employment until shortly before sixteen B-25s were loaded on her flight deck (Most of Doolittle's men also had no idea what they were doing, even as they were being trained by a Naval officer on short take-offs prior to their arrival in Alameda). On 2 April 1942 Hornet put to sea and headed west across the vast Pacific.
Joined in mid-ocean on 13 April by Vice Admiral William F. Halsey's flagship USS Enterprise, which would provide air cover during the approach, Hornet steamed toward a planned 18 April afternoon launching point some 400 miles from Japan. However, before dawn on 18 April, enemy picket boats were encountered much further east than expected. These were evaded or sunk, but got off radio warnings, forcing the planes to take off around 8 AM, while still more than 600 miles out.
Most of the sixteen B-25s, each with a five-man crew, attacked the Tokyo area, with a few hitting Nagoya. Damage to the intended military targets was modest, and none of the planes reached the Chinese airfields (though all but a few of their crewmen survived). However, the Japanese high command was deeply embarrassed. Three of the eight American airmen they had captured were executed. Spurred by Combined Fleet commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, they also resolved to eliminate the risk of any more such raids by the early destruction of America's aircraft carriers, a decision that led them to disaster at the Battle of Midway a month and a half later.
After the raid
Decorated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt with the Medal of Honor and promoted to the rank of Brigadier General after the Japan raid, and later to Lieutenant General, Doolittle commanded the Twelfh and Fifteenth Air Forces in the North African and Mediterranean Theaters in 1942-43. During 1944-45, he led the Eighth Air Force in both the European and Pacific Theaters. He returned to private industry following World War II and remained an prominent figure in the aeronautics field. In 1985, he received four-star rank on the Air Force Retired List. General James H. Doolittle died in 1993.