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Doolittle: Aviation Legend

Permit me a momentary departure from my usual blog themes with this one. For those of you who enjoy aviation history, I hope you’ll enjoy it.


I have a few pieces of aviation art I would consider to be collectables. A numbered print I have is called “The Doolittle Mission”. It is signed by one of my hero’s, Jimmy Doolittle. I purchased it the day after he passed away. It shows a B-25 Bomber lifting off the Aircraft Carrier Enterprise followed by the others on their way to a secret mission for a first-ever strike on the homeland of the nation that had just attacked Pearl Harbor. I will surely understate the enormity of the moment. Imagine, just 5 months after the demoralizing attack, with America in the throes of repeatedly depressing news of continuous losses in the Pacific War, there stood Doolittle’s bombers about to deliver what the enemy military assured its population could not happen; Aerial bombardment. It happened, and with that one raid, national malaise turned to ardent fist-pumping determination. After the raid, all the aircraft crash landed after having run out of fuel with most crews bailing out successfully over China; there was not enough fuel to return. Some crews were captured by the enemy, some were executed. The mission was a crazy idea and many thought it suicidal. Not Jimmy. He was awarded the nation’s highest respect, the Medal of Honor. This alone is the stuff of heroes, but there is much, much more to Doolittle, and did you know the connection between Doolittle and General George Patton; between Doolittle and Paul Tibbets? Read on.


Before the war, Jimmy was already a hero, yes a national treasure. In fact it was never intended that such a person be allowed to participate in such a risky, dangerous mission. In a short period he taught and led the raiders, and only through his own crafty, verbal slight-of-hand between two Generals did he talk his way into actually flying, as well as leading the mission.


Consider that before the war as an aviator:

  • He was the first to fly a cross-continental flight in less than 24 hours in 1922
  • Ten years later in 1932 he was the first to do it in 12 hours
  • He first demonstrated the art of flying solely by reference to instruments in the first ‘blind’ flight in 1929. You instrument rated pilots have him to thank
  • He was the first to execute an ‘outside loop’ in 1927 which many thought an impossible maneuver
  • I counted six Trophies and Cups he won for air racing
  • Depending on which historian you believe, he was either the first or among the first six to ever earn an Aeronautical Doctoral Degree; this from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Science. Just a year earlier he had earned his Master of Science from MIT as well.
  • At one time or another he had held various flying records
  • Those of you who fly piston powered aircraft use 100 Octane fuel. Did you know that Jimmy led the effort for the Shell Oil Company to produce that type of fuel? This fuel became crucial to the high-performance planes that were used during WW-II.

Consider these tidbits after the Tokyo Raid and during the rest of the war:

  • At the time of the raid in 1942, Doolittle was a Lieutenant Colonel. After the raid he jumped the rank of Colonel and went to a 1 Star General, a Brigadier General. Also in 1942, Jimmy was made Commanding General of the 12th Air Force in North Africa where his 12th supported General George Patton’s Army
  • Later in 1942 he was again promoted to a 2 Star General, Major General
  • In 1943 he became the Commanding General of the 15th Air Force in Italy
  • In 1944 Doolittle became Commanding General of the fabled 8th Air Force and earned a third Star, Lieutenant General

Do you remember the famous story of the Memphis Belle B-17? They were the first air crew to complete 25 missions at a time of high losses; before that the flying toll was so terrible that no crew had attained that goal. 25 missions was the supreme goal for all aircrews; you made it then went home (but still in the Army). Later in the war due to many changes in strategy and successes, those losses significantly diminished and serious thought had to be given to extending out the 25 mission milestone. Guess who took responsibility for that? Yes Doolittle extended it a couple of times; not an endearing act to his troops!


And Patton?


Doolittle was in command of the air forces which many times directly supported Patton’s fiery onslaught on the ground. They first met in North Africa which was America’s entre into the fight against the Nazi’s. Exchanging of communique letters between battlefield commanders was common, and in those between the two, they were on a first name basis; Patton preferred to be called “Georgie”. Most of us recall the infamous chapter in Patton’s life when he was removed from duty due to an incident where he struck a soldier he had considered cowardly. In what may have been Patton’s lowest, darkest days,


Doolittle recalls in his book:

One day I was flying from Italy back to my base in North Africa, I decided to call on Georgie because I knew he must be depressed. As I approached the field, I called the tower and identified myself and said I would like to land and pay my respects to General Patton if that was agreeable and convenient. I was cleared to land. When I parked, there was Georgie in his famous jeep with the three star flags flying, his helmet reflecting the sun gloriously, and his ivory handled revolvers at his side. He rushed forward, threw his arms around me, and with great tears running down his face said ‘Jimmy I’m glad to see you. I didn’t think anyone would ever call on a mean old son of a bxxxx like me’”1

That was Jimmy, and that was Georgie.


Did you know there was also a connection between Paul Tibbets and Doolittle?


Paul Tibbets was the pilot famed for having flown the Enola Gay B-29 on its mission to drop the first atomic bomb. Tibbets was a skilled pilot that had gained notoriety in the European theater; in fact he at times was the personal pilot for Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander. At one point the B-26 Marauder Medium Bomber was being introduced into service. It had gained the unfortunate reputation among aircrews as a ‘killer’; not of the enemy but of aircrews in accidents. Jimmy, who had considerable experience with the Marauder, thought this plane was ‘just another aircraft’, and set about to prove it. On one occasion he had the opportunity to take Tibbets for a ride, and Tibbets recalls in his memoirs:

“I should have suspected that Doolittle know more about the B-26 than he admitted when he said, ‘It’s just another airplane. Let’s start it up and play with it.’

That is exactly what we did. We got in the air and circled to 6,000 feet remaining close enough to the field to reach the runway if we had trouble. But everything went smoothly.

Doolittle then shut down one of the engines and feathered the propeller. He got the plane trimmed and we did some flying on one engine, turning in both directions, climbing and making steep banks. The Marauder was a tame bird with Doolittle at the controls.

Suddenly he put the plane into a dive, built up excess speed, and put it into a perfect loop-all with one engine dead. As we came to the bottom of the loop, he took the dead propeller out of feather and it started windmilling. When it was turning fast enough, he turned on the magnetos and started the engine as we made a low pass over the airfield. We came around in a normal manner, dropped the gear and the flaps, and set the B-26 down smoothly on the runway.

The pilots and operations people who had been watching us were impressed. The flight was an enormous start toward convincing them that the B-26 was just another airplane.” 2

By the way, during the winter of 2010-2011, I had the honor of being deployed overseas and serving under a Grandson of Tibbets, Colonel Paul W. Tibbets IV of the USAF, while he was Vice Commander of the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing.


If that was all, it would have been a legendary story already, but after the war Jimmy remained very active in aviation. He served on many aviation committees for various Presidents which helped shape the modern aviation transportation systems we enjoy today. He remained active in the military in the reserves, and worked to make the Air Force the separate branch that it is today. He also became the first Reserve Officer to become a Four Star General, and was the first President of Air Force Association. In 1989 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Doolittle’s closest friend and supporter was his sweetheart wife Josephine, who he always referred to as ‘Joe’. At first, Joe’s family was not supportive of their daughter marrying a daredevil stunt pilot, but they quickly got over that.


At the age of 96, General Jimmy Doolittle died at his home in Pebble Beach, California, on September 27, 1993. Befitting his impact on U.S. aviation history, Doolittle was buried with full military honors in Section 7-A of Arlington National Cemetery, with his high school sweetheart, Josephine Daniels Doolittle (May 24, 1895 - December 24, 1988).

After a service at the Fort Myer Memorial Chapel, Doolittle's flag-draped coffin was placed on a military caisson. Drawn by six horses, the caisson traveled down a winding road from the chapel to the grave. Leading the entourage was the U.S. Air Force Band and 50 honor guards. Hundreds of mourners joined friends and family who followed the caisson. Doolittle was given an elaborate ceremony reserved for dignitaries. It included a 21-gun salute and flyover by 11 aircraft, including a B-1B, a twin-propeller World War II B-25 bomber, eight F-15 and F-16 fighter jets and a C-141 cargo jet. After a brief graveside service, one of the Doolittle Raiders tried to play taps in honor of his former commander, but retired Colonel William Bower could manage only a few faltered notes before having to pass the bugle to Doolittle's great-grandson who finished the playing of taps flawlessly.


1. Doolittle, General James ‘Jimmy H., with Carroll V. Glines, I could Never Be So Lucky Again”, New York: Bantam Books, 1991, Page 336)


2. Tibbets, Paul W., with Clair Stebbins and Harry Franken, The Tibbets Story. New York: Stein and Day, 1978, p.123.


Posted By Roy Resto | 12/5/2011 4:52:30 PM

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