James H. Doolittle, American Hero

October 01, 1993

An old saw of the lore of flight says "there are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots." Lt. Gen. James H. Doolittle, the legendary Army aviator and World War II hero who died Monday at the age of 96, was the gloriously intrepid exception who proved the rule.

The general's fighting spirit was shaped by a boyhood on the Alaska frontier, where his father had been drawn by gold rush fever around the turn of the century. Young Doolittle learned to mix it up on the rough streets of Nome and briefly considered a professional boxing career before enlisting in the Army Signal Corps during World War I, where he earned a commission as a pilot and instructor.

After the war, he pursued a dual career as scholar and daredevil, studying engineering and earning a doctorate from MIT while thrilling crowds on the barnstorming circuit as a stunt flier. An early member of the elite fraternity of test pilots, he set and broke nearly every cross-country speed record during the 1920s and '30s and revolutionized flying by making the first take-off and landing guided entirely by instruments.

But it was for his daring leadership of the American bombing raid against Japan four months after Pearl Harbor, on April 18, 1942, that Jimmy Doolittle became the first great American hero of World War II and sealed his place in history. The "Doolittle Raid" by 16 twin-engined, B-25 bombers launched from a carrier 650 miles off the enemy coast brought the war home to Japan for the first time and lifted American morale when the country was still reeling from an unbroken string of Axis victories. Though the damage inflicted by the raiders was slight, it put the world on notice that America had the will and resources to fight back.

The most significant consequence of the raid indeed may have been its psychological effect on Japanese leaders, who had considered their islands invulnerable behind the 6,000-mile-long defense line they had established in the Pacific. Doolittle's Raid provoked Adm. Isoruku Yamamoto to launch an ill-fated attack against the tiny Pacific island of Midway in June of that year; in the ensuing battle, the Imperial Japanese Navy was dealt a crushing defeat from which it never recovered.

General Doolittle went on to become a distinguished leader of the air war in Europe. After the Allied victory he served as president of the Institute of Aeronautical Science and chairman of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the forerunner of NASA. He will be remembered as a pioneer aviator, an authentic American hero and a stick-and-rudder artist without parallel.

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