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B&C Member Spotlight - General James Doolittle

By PJ DelHomme 

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, aviator James Doolittle led a daring bombing mission over mainland Japan, earning him the Congressional Medal of Honor. When he wasn’t serving his country, Doolittle often could be found hunting big game, his self-professed favorite sport.


James Doolittle wasn’t physically a big guy, but he made up for it with sheer determination and guts. His parents moved to California in search of gold in the late 1800s, and little James Harold Doolittle was born there in 1896. Four years later, his father moved the family north to Nome, Alaska, hoping to make it rich there, too. As a five-year-old boy with long curly hair—and the new kid in school—Doolittle had no choice but to fight. “Since my size was against me, I decided my survival could be insured only by a speedy attack right from the start,” he wrote in his autobiography, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again. “I began to blast my opponents with a flurry of punches regardless of the consequences.” His skills at fighting would serve him well down the road.

Doolittle moved back to California when he was 11 and kept fighting. He became an amateur boxing champion by the time he was 16. He studied engineering at the University of California, Berkeley but left in 1917 to enlist as a flying cadet in the Army Reserve, hoping to fight in World War I. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Signal Corps, but the war ended before he could fly overseas.

The Aviator

Even though the war ended before he could participate, Doolittle’s unrelenting nature followed him from the boxing ring to the cockpit—and he would find plenty of opportunities to test his skills in the air.

Doolittle excelled at pushing the limits, even going so far as to walk on the wings of the aircraft he was flying. As a serious aviator, Doolittle’s “firsts” are many. In 1922, he completed the first cross-country flight in a DH-4 Liberty, the only U.S.-built aircraft used in World War I. This was his second attempt. On his first try, he hit a patch of loose dirt at takeoff, which grabbed a wheel and sent the plane tumbling. The second successful attempt earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross. Less than a year later, Doolittle enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied advanced aeronautical engineering. In 1925, he earned a doctorate in it.


Between the end of WWI and the U.S. entry into WWII, Doolittle was the pioneer in aviation. He set a record for the fastest seaplane ever flown (232 mph). He became the first person to perform a maneuver called the outside loop—meaning the pilot’s head is on the outside of the loop, requiring a head-first dive. He’d already performed plenty of inside loops where the pilot’s head is inside the loop. He completed the first “blind” takeoff and landing, aided by artificial horizontal and directional gyroscopes that he helped develop. He set the world’s high-speed record for racer airplanes on land (296 mph). As a reservist, he managed the aviation department at Shell Oil Company, where he pushed for high-octane fuel, which later was credited for helping British pilots defeat the Germans in the Battle of Britain. In 1940, he became president of the Institute of Aeronautical Science.

WWII was raging by July 1940, and Doolittle returned to active duty. He worked with auto plants to help them convert production to airplanes. On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and Army General Henry "Hap" Arnold chose Lieutenant Colonel Doolittle to plan and lead a retaliatory strike on Japan’s mainland—something the Japanese thought impossible. If the world had never heard of Jimmy Doolittle, they indeed were about to.

The Doolittle Raid

The plan to bomb Japan was riddled with holes from the beginning, making the operation extremely risky to pilots and crew. The plan involved 16 B-25 bombers taking off from an aircraft carrier 450 miles from Japan. Ideally, the bombers would bomb Tokyo and various other scattered targets to make it seem like a larger force was attacking. Then, because landing the bombers on a carrier was too difficult, the pilots would fly to Allied-friendly airfields in China, where Allied forces would pick them up. Some of the raid went as planned.

For months, the crews trained to fly low at night, using few navigation aids—no landmarks or radio references. April 18, 1942, was the day they would test their training and themselves, but things started with a hiccup. About 200 miles out from their target launch area, the carrier was spotted by a Japanese patrol boat, which relayed the USS Hornet’s position back to its base. Instead of scrapping the mission or waiting to get closer, the planes launched early. With 500 feet of runway (not much), Doolittle launched his B-25 into the wind. The other 15 B-25s followed suit.

The crews successfully dropped an estimated 14 tons of bombs with no issues until they realized they weren’t going to make it the 1,600 miles to friendly Chinese airfields. Doolittle’s plane crashed in a Chinese rice paddy, but not before he and the crew bailed out. Remarkably, all but three of the 16 crews made it to Chunking, China, with three fatalities during bailouts or crash landings. Of the three crews that didn’t make it to Chunking, one landed in Vladivostok, Russia, and two crews were captured by Japanese forces in China after bailing out. All of the B-25s were destroyed. As he surveyed the wreckage of his bomber, Doolittle thought he had failed his men and his country.

“I felt lower than a frog’s posterior,” he wrote. “This was my first combat mission. I had planned it from the beginning and led it. I was sure it was my last. My main concern was for my men. What had happened to my crew probably had happened to others. If so, they had to be scattered all over a considerable area of China. How many had survived?” Doolittle thought he would face a court-martial and spend the rest of his days in prison at Fort Leavenworth. In reality, quite the opposite happened. One day after the attack, Colonel Doolittle was promoted two ranks to brigadier general. A month later, he was at the White House, where President Franklin Roosevelt pinned the Medal of Honor on him. While the raid did little physical damage to the land of the rising sun, it had a huge psychological effect on the people of Japan and the United States. No longer was mainland Japan safe from outside attack, and the country was forced to expand its homeland defenses. As Japan’s naval forces made their way home, Admiral Nimitz intercepted them, and the resulting Battle of Midway destroyed Japan’s carrier strength in the Pacific.

Army Air Corps Brig. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle receives the Medal of Honor from President Franklin D. Roosevelt during a White House ceremony. Looking on are (from left) Army Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, chief of the Army Air Forces; Mrs. Josephine Doolittle; and Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall.

In the U.S., Doolittle’s raid was welcome information to a nation hungry for good news. The raid was used as a recruiting tool and a way to sell more war bonds. Spencer Tracy would star as Doolitte in the 1943 movie Thirty Seconds over Tokyo.

As for Doolittle, he would go on to command the 12th Air Force in Britain, the 15th Air Force, and the 8th Air Force, which later attacked Germany. He was promoted to Lieutenant General in 1944 and held the rank of general when he left the Army in 1946. After the war, Doolittle returned to his job at Shell Oil, serving as vice president. Throughout his civilian career, he would serve as a director at Mutual of Omaha and other insurance companies.

Hunting Everything


When Doolittle was growing up in Alaska, he went on his first hunt around the age of seven, and it would fuel a lifelong passion. He had a .22 single-shot and found a puddle containing a pair of teal ducks. He crawled within range, shot one, and waded out to retrieve it. Then he marched down Front Street in Nome “...with this duck in one hand and the .22 rifle in the other. I don’t remember anytime since being as proud of a trophy as I was of my first game.”

Naturally, Doolittle’s hunting took a backseat during the war years, but he eventually returned to it. He visited Alaska often, regarding it a hunter’s paradise. He loved hunting Dall’s sheep in the Brooks Range. “They are probably the most desired among all hunters of big North American game because they are the most difficult to find, to stalk, and to kill,” he said. He favored a .257 magnum because of its flat trajectory.

Bears were his second type of favorite big game, and one encounter with an angry sow nearly took him out. He was walking a narrow bear trail in mushy tundra when he met a sow brown bear and her 250-pound cub. The sow charged, and he killed it. Even though the cub was big enough to fend for itself, “I have always felt bad about this,” he wrote. He was 71 at the time.

While hunting Alaska in 1956, Doolittle killed his only Boone and Crockett Club record-book entry, a barren ground caribou that scored 407-5/8 points.

He was also a fan of polar bear hunting but lamented the march of technology into the hunts. In Doolittle’s experience, hunters used two planes on the hunt—one to spot and the other as a backup in case of a mechanical issue and/or crash. “Modern polar bear hunting has become so easy, I fear, that unless some new laws are enacted, the polar bear will probably become extinct.”

Like his fellow Boone and Crockett Club member Sasha Siemel, Doolittle hunted jaguars in South America, traveling to Venezula’s Orinoco River with his .300 Weatherby. He and his guide would sit in a jungle blind at night, waiting. The guide would blow into a gourd to mimic a jaguar’s howl, a challenge. He never got a shot.

Like many Club members, Doolittle traveled to Africa in search of elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards, and buffalo—otherwise known as the big five. In Kenya, he used a .458 magnum to kill all but a lion. His trip caused him to ponder the future of wildlife conservation. “I don’t think that elephant hunting is great sport,” he wrote. “It is very distressing to learn that poachers are decimating the African elephant herds only for their ivory. The elephant I got was a rogue that had been terrorizing native villages in Nairobi, so I have always felt I was doing the populace a favor by killing it.” Doolittle understood the role hunter as a conservationist and believed in following regulations to the letter of the law.

The United States lost a hero when Jimmy Doolittle passed away at 96 in 1993. As a recipient of the Medal of Honor, he is joined by two other Boone and Crockett Club members, Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt Jr. General Doolittle is buried at Arlington National Cemetary, section 7A, grave 110.

President Ronald Reagan and Senator Barry L. Goldwater pin the fourth star on Air Force Gen. James Doolittle on April 10, 1985, 26 years after his retirement from the U.S. Air Force. Doolittle was advanced to the four-star rank by Senate confirmation, making him the first person in Air Force Reserve history to wear four stars.

Member Spotlights

Boone and Crockett Club members have come from a cross-section of famous accomplished people whose lives and careers have written and recorded the history of this country since the late 19th Century. They have been naturalists, scientists, explorers and sportsmen, writers and academicians, artists, statesmen and politicians, generals, bankers, financiers, philanthropists, and industrialists. Their diversity of ideas and activities during their careers have made the Boone and Crockett Club rich in its fellowship and achievements. To read more member spotlights, just click here

PJ DelHomme writes and edits content from his home in western Montana. He runs Crazy Canyon Media and Crazy Canyon Journal

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-Theodore Roosevelt