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Monday, September 26, 2005

Jimmy Doolittle Dies, September 27, 1993

Today in 1993, Jimmy Doolittle, aged 96, died in California. The four-star general served his country during three wars and was one of the most highly decorated American airmen of all time. His contributions to the world of aviation spanned more than four decades and helped make military and civilian flight the commonplace activity that it is today.

Born in California, raised in Alaska, James Harold Doolittle might never have learned to fly had it not been for the First World War. He was a junior in college when he enlisted in the Signal Corps Reserve as a flying cadet. It was 1917 and airplanes were quickly moving from curious oddities to deadly machines of war. Doolittle was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Signal Corps’ Aviation Section in 1918 and spent the remainder of the war in the United States, serving as a flight instructor.

The end of the war saw massive reductions in all the services, but Doolittle was able to stay on and continue his work with aircraft. The 1920’s were a golden time to be a pilot and Doolittle made the most of it. He made many pioneering flights during the decade, including the fastest cross-country flight across the United States in 1922 (21 hours, 19 minutes). He was also the first pilot to ever perform an outside loop.

Doolittle’s greatest contribution to the aviation community during these years was in the area of instrumentation. He had a hand in developing the artificial horizon and the directional gyroscope, two instruments that are today considered indispensable. In fact, Doolittle’s work in this field enabled, for the first time, all-weather airline operations.

Doolittle resigned his regular commission in 1930, but returned to active status in 1940 as war clouds loomed on the horizon in Europe. Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Doolittle planned the first raid on the Japanese home islands. In what would be called the Doolittle raid, 16 Army B-25 bombers took off from the USS Hornet and bombed targets in Tokyo, Kobe, Osaka and Nagoya. The mission was fraught with danger, including the fact that the pilots had to plan for a landing in China. Almost all of the pilots and crews had to bail out of their aircraft over or near China due to a lack of fuel and some were shot down over Japan. For his planning and heroism, Doolittle was awarded the Medal of Honor and was promoted from Lieutenant Colonel to Brigadier General. While the raid did little damage to Japanese industry, it embarrassed the Japanese military establishment and made them pull frontline units back to homeland for defense.

For the rest of the war, Doolittle would find himself in command of three air forces: the 12th Air Force in North Africa, the 15th Air Force in the Mediterranean and the 8th Air Force in Europe. After the end of hostilities in Europe, the 8th Air Force was moved to the Pacific but saw no action before the end of the war. Doolittle ended the war as a Lieutenant General; in December, 1941 he was a Major.

Doolittle returned to civilian life in 1946 but continued to serve the Air Force in an advisory capacity until 1959. He became a Vice President for Shell Oil and later served as a Director. In 1985, Congress made Jimmy Doolittle a four-star general in recognition of his service to the nation.

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