Saturday, December 12, 2009

Jimmy Doolittle

Jimmy Doolittle was born to missionaries in December of 1896. They moved to Nome, Alaska, where Jimmy must have had an awfully rough time in grade school, seeing as how he was 1) Caucasian in an almost all-Indian town, 2) the preacher’s kid, 3) named “Doolittle.” Can you imagine a better recipe for getting picked on in the schoolyard? Even worse, he was small of stature, which was a fourth strike against him. Even as a grown man, he weighed no more than 112 pounds.

Surprisingly, Jimmy Doolittle turned out to be an extraordinarily tough little guy who became an amateur boxer and won the Golden Gloves championship of the entire Western United States. Even more surprising, Doolittle turned out to be a brilliant scholar, as well. He earned a PhD. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Aeronautics. After his service in the Army Air Corps, he earned a doctorate in Aeronautics. Jimmy Doolittle is very close to my concept of the ideal man. He was extremely smart and extremely tough.

Between the World Wars, he earned a reputation as one of the best civilian flyers in the country. When WWII broke out, he was called to active duty at the rank of lieutenant colonel. In early 1942, he pulled off one of the most innovative schemes in the history of warfare. The United States did not yet have any bases close enough to Japan to launch a ground attack. The Navy was not yet strong enough to do that with the few available aircraft carriers they had. So Doolittle hatched a scheme to fly sixteen Army B-25s off the flight deck of the USS Hornet and attack Tokyo and send a very clear message to the Japanese that they could not attack us with impunity. Because a Japanese trawler spotted the Hornet’s task group, approximately 670 miles off the Japanese coast, Doolittle had to launch his planes a day early. Each of them ran out of gas before they could reach the Nationalist Chinese air bases they were hoping to reach. Of the eighty Doolittle raiders, four were killed when their planes crashed, three were captured by the Japanese and executed, and one died in Japanese captivity. Five more were interned in Russia. The rest walked more than 100 miles to safety.

For that spectacular feat, Doolittle was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and promoted to Brigadier General, skipping the rank of Colonel. For most of the rest of the war, Doolittle was in England, directing the strategic bomber offensive against Germany and reaching the rank of lieutenant general. (I understand that he and General Patton were drinking buddies.)

After the war, Doolittle had a spectacularly successful career in the aeronautics industry and died in 1993. The surviving Doolittle raiders continue to have a reunion each year to reminisce. (The 2009 Reunion was held in Columbia, South Carolina.)

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