Remembering Jimmy Doolittle -- a true hero by any measure

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Seventy years ago this week, huge headlines appeared in every newspaper in America. On April 18, 1942, a small number of B-25 bombers struck Japan. One headline read: “TOKYO BOMBED: DOOLITTLE DOOD IT.”

Who was Jimmy Doolittle? What was he like? How did he spend his life after the raid on Japan? One thing is for sure – Alec Baldwin was terribly miscast in the 2001 movie Pearl Harbor. Doolittle was not a large, overweight, mean-spirited man. In fact, he was just the opposite.

AT 5-FEET-4, Doolittle was small and very athletic. In his youth, he was an intercollegiate gymnast and a professional boxer. He was an aeronautical engineer; a daredevil aviator and racing pilot; an aviation executive; a military commander in both the European and Pacific theaters of war; a scientist; and a presidential adviser. He has been and remains an inspirational figure to generations of young people.

After serving in World War I and graduating from college, Doolittle enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to obtain a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering.

In 1927 he was the first pilot to execute an outside loop. Up to that time, this had been thought to be a fatal maneuver because of the stresses encountered with negative G-forces. Doolittle executed the dive from 10,000 feet, reached 280 miles per hour, bottomed out upside-down then climbed and completed the loop.

The first person to take off, fly and land an airplane entirely by instruments, Doolittle also was the first person to win all three major aviation racing awards: the Schneider, Bendix and Thompson trophies.

His post-World War II service is noteworthy. He served as an adviser to the Air Force, the Central Intelligence Agency and a number of American presidents. He was especially skilled at bringing together fellow scientists and military leaders to develop new aviation and intelligence technologies.

To give a flavor of the real Jimmy Doolittle, let me quote from someone who knew him well – Medal of Honor recipient Jack Jacobs. As a reminder, Jack is a great friend of Augusta, having visited here five times in recent years. On one occasion, as an NBC-TV analyst, Jacobs brought national attention to the Active Duty Rehabilitation Unit at Augusta’s Uptown VA hospital. This is an email Jacobs sent to me just last week:

“WHEN I WAS decorated more than 40 years ago, there were nearly 400 recipients.

“Perhaps because there were so many recipients who often acted with noisy impropriety, Jimmy Doolittle’s maturity and calmness shone that much more brightly. He reminded me a great deal of my father: a compact, efficient bundle of muscle.

“But the thing I remembered most about him was his round, smiling face and eyes set in wrinkles made by his laughter. He was an avuncular man who easily and happily wore the mantle of mentor. I remember his telling me that if I ever needed any guidance I should come to him first because he was an old man and had had more experience than these crazy, boisterous youngsters from World War II. The other thing about him that struck me was how genteel he was. He spoke quietly, in complete sentences, and was the quintessential gentleman.”

Doolittle said hundreds of times that he did not deserve the Medal of Honor. When young men received this award, Doolittle would sit down quietly with them and explain that being a recipient carried a heavy responsibility. He explained that each recipient represented everyone who had served, did serve or will serve in uniform. He stressed to all new recipients that they must always be humble. Jimmy Doolittle set the standard of profound humility.

My wife, Connor, and I had a magic evening in 1986. She was the soloist at Jimmy Doolittle’s 90th birthday party, which was held in the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. In attendance were Ann Morrow Lindbergh, Clare Booth Luce, Stewart Symington and many of America’s pioneer aviators. They wanted to be with their dear friend on his last visit to the East Coast.

FOR THOSE interested in gaining a better understanding of this remarkable American, Doolittle’s autobiography – I Never Could Be So Lucky Again – is highly recommended.

Are there any Jimmy Doolittles on the scene today? Doolittle would point to his fellow Medal of Honor recipients. The book Medal of Honor by Peter Collier tells the story of our living recipients. Also recommended is If Not Now When? by Jack Jacobs.

(The writer, a retired U.S. Air Force major general, serves on the boards of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation, the Augusta Warrior Project and the Augusta Museum of History. His email address is genpsmith@aol.com.)


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