Born on December 14, 1896, James Harold Doolittle was the son of Frank and Rose Doolittle of Alameda, CA. Spending part of his youth in Nome, AK, Doolittle quickly developed a reputation as boxer and became the amateur flyweight champion of the West Coast. Attending Los Angeles City College, he transferred to the University of California-Berkeley in 1916. With the US entry into World War I, Doolittle left school and enlisted in the Signal Corps reserve as a flying cadet in October 1917. While training at the School of Military Aeronautics and Rockwell Field, Doolittle married Josephine Daniels on December 24.
World War I:
Commissioned a second lieutenant on March 11, 1918, Doolittle was assigned to Camp John Dick Aviation Concentration Camp, TX as a flying instructor. He served in this role at various airfields for the duration of the conflict. While posted to Kelly Field and Eagle Pass, TX, Doolittle flew patrols along the Mexican border in support of Border Patrol operations. With the war's conclusion later that year, Doolittle was selected for retention and given a Regular Army commission. After being promoted to first lieutenant in July 1920, he attended the Air Service Mechanical School and Aeronautical Engineering Course.
After completing these courses, Doolittle was permitted to return to Berkeley to complete his undergraduate degree. He achieved national fame in September 1922, when he flew a de Havilland DH-4, equipped with early navigational instruments, across the United States from Florida to California. For this feat, he was given the Distinguished Flying Cross. Assigned to McCook Field, OH as a test pilot and aeronautical engineer, Doolittle entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1923, to begin work on his masters degree.
Given two years by the US Army to complete his degree, Doolittle began conducting aircraft acceleration tests at McCook. These provided the basis for his master's thesis and earned him a second Distinguished Flying Cross. Finishing his degree a year early, he commenced work towards his doctorate which he received in 1925. That same year he won the Schneider Cup race, for which he received the 1926 Mackay Trophy. Though injured during a demonstration tour in 1926, Doolittle remained on the leading edge of aviation innovation.
Working from McCook and Mitchell Fields, he pioneered instrument flying and assisted in developing the artificial horizon and directional gyroscope that are standard in modern aircraft. Utilizing these tools, he became the first pilot to take off, fly, and land using only instruments in 1929. For this feat of "blind flying," he later won the Harmon Trophy. Moving to the private sector in 1930, Doolittle resigned his regular commission and accepted one as a major in the reserves upon becoming the head of Shell Oil's Aviation Department.
While working at Shell, Doolittle aided in developing new higher-octane aircraft fuels and continued his racing career. After winning the Bendix Trophy Race in 1931, and the Thompson Trophy Race in 1932, Doolittle announced his retirement from racing, stating, "I have yet to hear anyone engaged in this work dying of old age." Tapped to serve on the Baker Board to analyze the reorganization of the air corps, Doolittle returned to active service on July 1, 1940, and was assigned to the Central Air Corps Procurement District where he consulted with auto makers about transitioning their plants to build aircraft.
World War II:
Following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the US entry into World War II, Doolittle was promoted to lieutenant colonel and transferred to Headquarters Army Air Force to aid in planning an attack against the Japanese home islands. Volunteering to lead the raid, Doolittle planned to fly sixteen B-25 Mitchell medium bombers off the deck the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, bomb targets in Japan, then fly through to bases in China. Approved by General Henry Arnold, Doolittle relentlessly trained his volunteer crews in Florida before embarking aboard Hornet.
Sailing under a veil of secrecy, Hornet's task force was spotted by Japanese picket on April 18, 1942. Though 170 miles short of their intended launch point, Doolittle decided to immediately commence the operation. Taking off, the raiders successfully hit their targets and proceeded on to China where most were forced to bail out short of their intended landing sites. Though the raid inflicted little material damage, it provided a massive boost to Allied morale and forced the Japanese to redeploy their forces to protect the home islands. For leading the strike, Doolittle received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Directly promoted to brigadier general the day after the raid, Doolittle was briefly assigned to the Eighth Air Force in Europe that July, before being posted to the Twelfth Air Force in North Africa. Promoted again in November (to major general), Doolittle was given command of the Northwest African Strategic Air Forces in March 1943, which consisted of both American and British units. A rising star in the US Army Air Force's high command, Doolittle briefly led the Fifteenth Air Force, before taking over the Eighth Air Force in England.
Assuming command of the Eighth, with the rank of lieutenant general, in January 1944, Doolittle oversaw its operations against the Luftwaffe in northern Europe. Among the notable changes he made was allowing escorting fighters to leave their bomber formations to attack German airfields. This aided in preventing German fighters from launching as well as assisted in allowing the Allies to gain air superiority. Doolittle led the Eighth until September 1945, and was in the process of planning for its redeployment to the Pacific Theater of Operations when the war ended.
With the postwar reduction of forces, Doolittle reverted to reserve status on May 10, 1946. Returning to Shell Oil, he accepted a position as a vice president and director. In his reserve role, he served as a special assistant to the Air Force chief of staff and advised on technical issues which ultimately led to the US space program and the Air Force's ballistic missile program. Retiring completely from the military in 1959, he later served as chairman of the board of Space Technology Laboratories. A final honor was bestowed upon Doolittle on April 4, 1985, when he was promoted to general on the retired list by President Ronald Reagan. Doolittle died September 27, 1993, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.