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Jimmy Doolittle Reminiscences About World War II

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On April 18, 1942, just 19 weeks after Japan’s devastating attack on the U.S. at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Lieutenant Colonel James H. ‘Jimmy’ Doolittle led the famed retaliatory bombardment of the Japanese capital. Newspapers headlined the exciting news: ‘TOKYO BOMBED! DOOLITTLE DOOD IT!’ A month later, during a brief ceremony at the White House, President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented newly-promoted Brigadier General Doolittle with the Medal of Honor, awarded by Congress for conspicuous gallantry in action.

Following that spectacular beginning to his World War II service, General Doolittle flew many combat missions in Europe and served as commander of the 12th Air Force in North Africa, the 15th Air Force in Italy, and the 8th Air Force in England and later on Okinawa. During his unique career in civil and military aviation, which saw him log more than 10,000 hours of flight time as pilot in command, Doolittle walked away from more plane crashes than he cared to remember; on three desperate occasions, he saved himself with last-minute parachute bail-outs. Born in Alameda, California, on December, 14, 1896, the only child of Rosa and Frank Doolittle, Jimmy spent part of his childhood in Nome, Alaska, where his father was searching for gold. A somewhat strained relationship with his father and the harshness of life in the town of Nome — known as the most lawless in Alaska — instilled in young Jimmy a sense of independence and self-reliance. And the brawling that was a regular part of life in that northern frontier town resulted in his learning to defend himself at an early age.

After enduring life in Nome for eight years, Rosa insisted that Jimmy be given a chance at better educational opportunities than Alaska then offered, so in 1908, the Doolittles returned to California, settling in Los Angeles. While studying to be a mining engineer at the University of California at Berkeley, Jimmy put his pugilistic skills to good use. Despite standing only 5′ 4′, he became a west coast champion bantamweight and middleweight boxer. For a brief time, he took up boxing professionally as a means of earning extra money. In 1917, Doolittle joined the aviation section of the Army’s Signal Corps, where he developed a lifelong love of airplanes and flying. Five years later, Jimmy, now an Army Air Corps officer, piloted the first airplane to cross the United States in less than 24 hours. In 1925, flying a Curtiss seaplane, he won the famed Schneider Trophy race for the United States. And in that same year, he received a doctorate in aeronautical sciences at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During the next decade, Doolittle won both the Bendix and Thompson Trophy races, set new speed and distance records, and worked to improve flying safety, becoming in the process the first pilot to fly completely ‘blind,’ relying entirely on instruments. By the end of the 1930s, Doolittle had won almost every aviation award then in existence, a few of them twice. He had become a master of the calculated risk, but few Americans were then aware that his remarkable skills were matched by a keen, probing mind and superb executive ability.

This author first met General Doolittle on November 10, 1942, two days after British and U.S. forces began landing in French North Africa. I was a Signal Corps photographic officer, sent to cover the Allied invasion, and on that day, I photographed him and his staff outside their newly established 12th Air Force Headquarters at Tafaraoui Aerodrome, 12 miles south of Oran, Algeria. He spoke of that occasion, and many of his memorable experiences, when I was lucky enough to talk with him again during a 1980 interview at his home in California. ‘Early in 1942,’ Doolittle recalled, ‘when the North African occupation was first conceived, it was planned as a very small operation. It grew, of course, into a very large British/American — and later, French — joint effort. . . . General Dwight Eisenhower had been designated to command the North African operation. In Washington, Generals George C. Marshall and Hap [Henry H.] Arnold would select the senior ground and air commanders. Marshall and [Lieutenant General Frank M.] Andrews called Georgie Patton and me to the Pentagon for a briefing before sending us to London,’ where they were to report to General Eisenhower at his headquarters in the British capital. Patton had known Eisenhower since World War I, but for Doolittle, it would be their first meeting. On August 7, 1942, the two generals met with Eisenhower to review plans for the invasion. ‘When Ike asked Georgie what action he proposed to take as ground commander, Georgie was all ready with a very positive, detailed invasion plan,’ recalled Doolittle. When he had finished, Eisenhower nodded, obviously pleased, then turned to Doolittle. ‘I replied with a very stupid answer,’ he remembered, telling him, ‘I will not be able to do anything until the air fields are captured and supplied with fuel, oil, ammunition, bombs, spare parts, and all the necessary ground personnel.’ Doolittle realized that his pragmatic reply disappointed Eisenhower. ‘It was a dumb thing,’ he said, ‘to tell a general with as much logistics experience and military service as Eisenhower.’ Subsequently, Doolittle learned that Ike had cabled General Marshall, stating: `Patton satisfactory. I do not want Doolittle.’ . . . General Marshall replied `You may have anyone you prefer. We still recommend Doolittle.” This situation ‘put Ike in a bad spot,’ Doolittle said, ‘and that made him dislike me even more. Although he finally agreed to accept me, it took me almost a year to really sell myself to him.’ Despite this inauspicious beginning, Doolittle eventually became one of Eisenhower’s boys. ‘One thing that didn’t exactly endear me to [Eisenhower] was the fact that I had left the service in 1930,’ Doolittle added. ‘Then when I was called back as a reserve officer in 1941 . . . he no doubt felt that somebody who had stayed in the army and been through all of the service schools would be more suitable as his air commander.’

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  1. One Comment to “Jimmy Doolittle Reminiscences About World War II”

  2. Canyou tell me if a Charles Bradley served with the Raiders from 1943-1945 in North Africia.

    By Patricia Pagliaro on Jul 27, 2008 at 3:56 pm

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