One of the best known of California's
aviators is James Harold Doolittle. Doolittle was one of the
pioneers of instrument flying and of advanced technology, while
also being an outstanding combat leader, commanding the Twelfth,
Fifteenth, and Eighth Air Forces during World War II.
Born at Alameda, California, on December
14, 1896, Doolittle was a junior at the University of California when the
United States entered World War I. He enlisted as a flying cadet in the
Army Signal Corps. He spent the war as a flying
instructor in the United States.
Remaining in the Army after the war, he earned
a B.A. degree in 1922 and then studied aeronautical engineering at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from which he received both a Masters
and Doctors degree in science. He took a leave of absence from the Army
in the period before World War II, but returned to active duty when the
He was awarded the Medal of Honor, and was
promoted from Colonel to Brigadier General for leading the first carrier-based
bomber attack on mainland Japan in 1942. His citation, presented personally
by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, reads,in part: "With the apparent certainty
of being forced to land in enemy territory or perish at sea, Colonel Doolittle
personally led a squadron of Army bombers, manned by volunteer crews, in
a highly destructive raid on the Japanese mainland."
General Doolittle died in California on September
27, 1993 and was buried in Section 7-A of Arlington National Cemetery,
with his high school sweetheart, Josephine Daniels Doolittle (May 24, 1895-December
The Doolittle Raid
A month after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt asked his senior military
leaders to find a way to strike back at Japan. At this grim point
in the Pacific War, he believed that an air attack against Japan
was the best way to bolster American morale.
The problem seemed unsolvable until an idea came to Captain Francis
S. "Frog" Low, the operations officer on the staff
of Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander in Chief U.S. Fleet. Captain
Low told Admiral King that when he was taking off from Norfolk,
Virginia, on a flight back to Washington, he had noticed the
outline of a carrier flight deck painted on the runway of the
naval airfield used to train Navy pilots. "I saw some Army
twin-engine planes making bombing passes at this simulated carrier
deck. I thought, if the Army had some twin-engine bombers with
a range greater than our [carrier planes], it seems to me a few
of them could be loaded on a carrier and used to bomb Japan."
On January 17, Low and Air Operations Officer Captain Donald B. Duncan, outlined the idea to General Arnold,
who immediately agreed to the proposal. Duncan and Low proposed
a test takeoff of twin-engine B-25 Mitchell bombers from the
aircraft carrier HORNET, then at Norfolk, Virginia. Arnold assigned
three B-25s to try some short-field takeoffs, and on February
2 two of them were lifted aboard the HORNET by crane and spotted - one forward and one aft - as if they were two of 15 tightly arranged
on the flight deck. The carrier steamed out into the Atlantic,
and the Army pilots easily took off. But there was a great difference
between two bombers taking off with little fuel and no bombs,
and perhaps a dozen fully loaded planes in the rough
seas of the North Pacific.
Meanwhile, Arnold had assigned Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle
to assemble a group of volunteer pilots and planes for the raid - modify the planes with extra gas tanks and other features, and
start a training program - all quickly and with the utmost
Under secret orders, Doolittle's bombers flew from their training
site, Eglin Field in Florida, to McClellan Field in Sacramento,
California. After a final series of checks, the B-25s then flew
to Alameda Naval Air Station near Oakland, California. Sixteen twin-engine
bombers were loaded by crane onto the deck of the HORNET - the
maximum number that Doolittle, Duncan and Low felt could be safely
flown off. Doolittle met secretly with Halsey in San Francisco
to go over the final steps of the plan, and on April 2 the HORNET
steamed out of San Francisco Bay.
On the morning of April 18, the planes were
loaded with bombs and ammunition, fueled, and spotted on the
HORNET's deck for takeoff. Halsey gave the order to go, sent
by flashing light from ENTERPRISE to the HORNET -
PLANES. TO COL DOOLITTLE AND GALLANT COMMAND GOOD LUCK AND GOD
BLESS YOU – HALSEY."
At 8;20 A.M., 770 miles east of
Japan, Doolittle, in the lead bomber, took off from the HORNET.
In just over an hour all 16 of the planes had been launched,
each flown by a crew of five.
Beginning at 12:15 P.M. the first of thirteen planes struck Tokyo.
The other planes hit Kobe, Nagoya, and Yokohama, all with little
opposition. When the smoke cleared, bomb damage was minimal.
But the daring one-way mission of April 18, 1942 electrified
the world and gave America's war hopes a terrific lift. As did
the others who participated in the mission, Doolittle had to
bail out, but fortunately landed in a rice paddy in China near
Chu Chow. Some of the other flyers lost their lives on the mission.
Doolittle and, eventually, 63 other fliers who came down in China
made their way back to the United States.
It would be more than two years before another bomb would fall
on Japan and several months after that before another would strike
the capital of Tokyo. Still, the "Doolittle Raid" was
the first step on the long and bloody road of retribution for
the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. And as the Pacific War raged
on, both American and Japanese leaders would wonder if that road
would ultimately lead to the shore of Japan itself. The "Doolittle
Raid" had proved that the home islands were indeed vulnerable
to air and sea attack.