James Doolittle was born in Alameda, California and attended the University of California where he studied engineering. He joined the Army in 1917, and in 1920 he was posted to the air corps where his engineering background helped him to rise quickly. In 1922 he made the first air crossing of the United States in under twenty-four hours. He was next assigned to various governmental aviation advisory boards. Sponsored by the Guggenheim Fund, he made the world’s first totally blind flight on 24 September 1929, and much of the instrumentation for this flight had been developed by Doolittle himself.
He retired from the Army and joined the Shell Oil Company in the early 1930s. His duties included promotional sales tours of North and South America and also in the aiding of the development of new aviation fuels. During this time he set many speed records and won many important races. His most notable wins were the Schneider in 1925, the Bendix in 1931, and the Thompson in 1932.
Doolittle returned to military aviation in 1940. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was the conception, organization and training of personnel for the B-25 Tokyo raid in April 1942. Seemingly against the laws of physics, Doolittle led a flight of bombers off the aircraft carrier USS Hornet in a sneak attack against mainland Japan which helped swing the course of the war in favor of America. President Roosevelt referred to the raid as having been launched from an undisclosed base he called “Shangri-La.” This brilliant raid caused the shocked Japanese to pull back front line air squadrons to protect the homeland, which weaken their offensive capabilities when they could least afford to. It also served as a huge moral boost for America, which was still reeling from the embarrassment of Pearl Harbor.
The success of this air raid earned Doolittle his general’s star and command of the 12th Air Force in North Africa. He later commanded the mighty Eighth Air Force in England from 1944-1945.
Dirk Anthony Ballendorf