Remarkable People: James H. Doolittle

We live in a time of great confusions: Celebrity is commonly mistaken for talent, image has frequently displaced substance, notoriety is often equated with accomplishment, rhetoric has generally displaced wisdom, and material success seems synonymous with character. To thoughtful people, this list of errors sometimes seems almost endless, and so it is good to recollect that there have always been individuals among us who exhibit the classical virtues of courage, justice, temperance, and prudence and whose lives, therefore, are worthy of study and emulation. This feature will offer brief descriptions of these exemplary human beings.

James Harold “Jimmy” Doolittle (1896-1993) was an American aviation pioneer and a famous pilot during the inter-war period. He was also a brilliant scholar who earned two degrees at M.I.T. and who made many important contributions to aeronautics. However, the convergence of the man with his mission took place in early 1942.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese military juggernaut was everywhere victorious. President Roosevelt needed something to hearten the American people, and he found exactly what he needed in Jimmy Doolittle. On 18 April 1942 James Doolittle led a group of Army Air Force pilots flying B-25 bombers in an attack on the Japanese homeland. Astonishingly, they took off from the deck of an aircraft carrier – the U.S.S Hornet – a feat thought impossible by aviation experts in both the United States and Japan. Compounding the challenge was the fact that a Japanese picket ship had detected the ships involved in the mission a full day before they were scheduled to take off, and so Doolittle and his crews faced what amounted to a one-way suicide mission. Nonetheless, they prevailed, bombing several targets in Japan and confounding the strategists at Imperial Headquarters, who expected the attack to come a day later, since the navy planes they expected to carry out the mission had a much shorter range. Doolittle and most of his air crews had to bail out of their aircraft over China, and most of them were found and guided back to allied lines by Chinese partisans.

Jimmy Doolittle, left, with Captain Mark Mitscher, Commanding Officer of the Hornet, with aircraft crew members in the background.

While the raid did relatively little physical damage, it nevertheless had profound consequences beyond boosting American morale. Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, was so mortified by Doolittle’s success that he rushed ahead with his plans for the invasion of Midway, and the hurried carelessness of the Japanese staff allowed American cryptanalysts to determine when and where the Japanese attack was to take place and to ambush the enemy fleet, effectively ending the Japanese military advance in the Pacific.

General James Doolittle died on 27 September 1993. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. At his brief graveside service, his great-grandson played “Taps” flawlessly.

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