INTERVIEW WITH GENERAL
JAMES H. DOOLITTLE
In 1984 General Adolf Galland was asked; “Which Allied Air Force Commander do you believed help defeat Germany during the war.” Galland lowered his glass, thought for a second and said: “That would be James Doolittle. He caused me many headaches during the war, but I do like him very much today.” From so worthy an opponent there can be no higher praise.
Doolittle was a renegade from the start; believing that there was always a better way to accomplish a task, or a more effective way to complete a mission. He always pushed his men to be their best, while never slowing down his own pace, even when he was twice their age. When America needed a real hero he was there for us, although his modesty would have never allowed him to accept any of the credit alone.
James H. Doolittle’s life is more remarkable and stranger than the best fiction. He has played the role of miner, racing pilot, doctor of aeronautical engineering, war hero, air force commander, tactician, strategist, hunter, Medal of Honor recipient, yet was always simply a good and humble man. All who have known him or served with him praised his virtues and cherished his ideals.
This abridged interview is a compilation of discussions that transpired between 1984 and 1993 after several years of sporadic contact, thanks to the late actor and Air Force Reserve Brigadier General James M. Stewart. During this period General Doolittle was working with historian Carroll V. Glines to produce his amazing autobiography, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again, which was used as a reference source for the accuracy of names and locations. Many thanks to C.V. Glines for helping General Doolittle produce such a fabulous work.
This interview is dedicated to all of the men who took the great risk on April 18, 1942 to strike a blow for freedom on their mission to Tokyo.
Q: When and where were you born Sir?
A: I dropped in on December 14, 1896 in California, and my father soon moved the
family to Alaska. This was on the heels of the gold rush.
Q: What was your childhood like?
A: Well, I was an only child, and growing up around Nome and the mining towns
was an experience. You had to be tough in many ways just to survive. There was
no electricity, and we burned wood and coal to stay warm and cook. The wood
came from crates and ships that wrecked; some shipments from the States. It was
a dangerous area for certain. There were saloons, prostitutes, everything. The real
wild west. There was no law to speak of; everyone carried weapons and they used
them. Gambling was rampant and crime increased with the growing population,
as happens in societies. I was always in fights with other boys. I was short for my
age and that made me a target. After a while I had a reputation, since I had
adopted a preemptive strike mentality early on. That has probably saved my life
over the decades more often than not.
Q: Tell us about your family?
A: Well, my son James Jr. was born in 1920 and his brother John was born in 1922.
Both were good boys and each became an Air Force Pilot, and I have to say that
no father could have been prouder. But I think Joe deserved most of the credit.
Q: What was your education like?
A: Well, my fighting ability was not matched by my academic performance. I was
not a very good student, which I think was due to my attraction to hunting and the
outdoors. I had a job selling the local newspaper to make some money. In 1908
we moved to Los Angeles where we had some relatives, and the warmth and
modern world were a marvel to me. I was enrolled at Barendo Elementary and
then attended Los Angeles manual arts high school in 1910.
Q: You had some famous classmates at that time, didn’t you?
A: Yes, Goodwin Knight was later a California governor, and Frank Capra, who we
all know of course. We became friends from those days forward.
Q: What started your interest in flying?
A: I went to the Dominguez Air Field, which is today in Compton, just outside LA.
This was 1910. This was when I first saw Glen Curtiss and other famous aviators.
I then decided to make a glider, and I followed the instructions in an old Popular
Mechanics. My mother sewed the fabric for my biplane adventure, although I
think she was reluctant to provide me with any encouragement. This thing was
more like a hang glider, and I took it to a small bluff with a fifteen foot rise. I ran
and jumped but the tail struck and sent me crashing. Undeterred I decided that I
needed more speed. I had a friend tow me behind his father’s car with a rope, but
I never got airborne and was dragged quite a ways. My glider was destroyed, and
I was very lucky myself.
Q: That did not stop you?
A: No, I decided to take the remains and build a monoplane glider with bicycle
wheels and an engine.
Q: How did that work out?
A: I gave up and took up boxing, and a teacher, Mr. Bailey taught me the finer
points. I had the attitude but not the skill. I entered amateur boxing matches and
won fights, and won the West Coast Amateur Championship in 1912 as a
flyweight. Later as I grew and put on more weight I entered the bantam class. I
did exhibitions with Eddie Campi and Kid Williams, names familiar to boxing
historians, and I did all right. However, I did get into a fight once that put me in
jail, and that taught me a valuable lesson. I was charged with disturbing the peace,
but facing my mother after a weekend in jail was the worse.
Q: Did that end your boxing days?
A: Well, no. My mother bought me a motorcycle as a way of getting me to qui
boxing, but all that did was make getting around to the matches and training all the easier. I began boxing as a professional under the name of Jimmy Pierce to
make some money.
Q: Tell us how you met your wife?
A: I met Joe (Josephine) during this time, and she was the first and only love of my
life. I can’t say her family were too enamored with me, and even my mother thought she could do better. She was not a fan of my lifestyle but we worked it
out. I returned to Alaska later for a while, then returned to LA and enrolled in Los
Angeles Junior College in 1915. Then I went to the University Of California to
study mine engineering, where I also boxed for the school and again as a professional, before settling down to my studies. We were married on December 24, 1917.
Q: What did you do after that?
A: I went to work for the Sierra Nevada Mining Company during one summer to
gain practical experience. We had two guys killed in an accident, and there were many things that awakened me to the dangers of deep shaft mining.
Q: How did World War I effect you?
A: Well, like most men I enlisted and returned to UC where I reported for flight
ground training. I took to the courses, which included meteorology, Morse-code
aerodynamics, mathematics, mechanics, navigation, all of the prerequisites. And
this was great, because up to that point I had been unemployed, and they paid me
fifty dollars per month. After graduation I went to San Diego for flight training. I
graduated on March 5, 1918.
Q: What was your next assignment?
A: I went to camp Dick, Texas, which was like a kind of punishment for me. There
was nothing to do, no planes, nothing. I wanted to go overseas and see some
action, but no joy. Then we went to Hoboken, New Jersey, where Frank Sinatra is
from, then to Dayton, Ohio, then to Lake Charles, Louisiana. This was finally all
right with me since we did our advance training in the S-4C Scout, which I liked
better than the old Jenny since it was faster.
Q: There was once an incident when you were reported dead. Tell us about that,
A: Yes, this was when a former Lafayette Escadrille pilot named James R. Doolittle
was killed in Buffalo, New York, and Joe was notified by some reporter that I was
dead. She did not believe it, and after some confusion I called her. She knew
better, as I informed her of where I was and I had not been in New York.
Q: Where was your next assignment?
A: I went to Rockwell Field in San Diego. This was a nice place, although I was
stuck there as a gunnery instructor. Not much to it really. We used the Jenny with
the top mounted Lewis gun firing over the propeller for training, pretty simple
really. However, I did have a mid-air collision there while I was flying with a
student pilot in a jenny. This fellow came up at us in a Scout and removed my
landing gear, which was a little unsettling. The crash damaged the propeller and
lower wing, but that poor fellow lost his head, literally, and we lost his plane but I
landed without much incident. Joe saw this incident in the local paper in Los
Angeles also. Not long after I had another collision and my prop tore off a student
pilots tail, and we lost both plane and pilot. Very sad. Later I was assigned to the
Mexican border as part of our security flights. This was in 1919, not long after the
Pershing expeditions into Mexico due to Pancho Villa’s raids. This was a crazy
assignment, since we could not fire on the Mexican bandits even if they fired on
us, and we had a pilot killed by ground fire. I promised myself that I would do
everything within my power to protect my pilots and crews from such ridiculous-
ness if I ever rose to command status. Instead of shooting them we flew low to
stampede their cattle and just raise general hell. After that I went back to Kelly
Field a year later. After a few long-range flights and temporary assignments I
went back to Dayton.
Q: Why did you stay in the Army rather than go back to school after the war?
A: I really enjoyed flying and it was something that I was good at. When you enjoy
doing something and your damned good at it, you should stay with it. Besides, I
felt safer at the controls of an aircraft than in a deep mine shaft. At least in a plane
you can have some measure of control over your fate. I also liked the military life,
it suited me. I did go later on and finish school.
Q: How did you get into barnstorming?
A: Well, I never did barnstorming, that would not have been allowed, although the
Army allowed us to set new speed and altitude records which made the aviation
corps look good in the press. There were some struggles in Congress about
restricting funds for the air branch. Once the war was over the powers that be
decided to cut back on military spending, which I have always considered a bad
strategic move. The guys who did barnstorming were the guys who got out of the
service and tried to make a living the best way they could. The first show I did
was in San Diego, and it was a big one, over 200 airplanes, and we had a great
time. We also went on a nationwide air tour with many different types of aircraft
in 1919, and this was the most fun time of all. I did get into airplane racing, which
was wonderful. I practiced for the Schneider Cup, which was only open to sea-
planes, and I flew my first one in October 1925. This was truly international in
that the British, Italians and our various service branches involved. This was a
very prestigious event, by the way and many careers were launched by this and
the Pulitzer races. I won the Schneider that year and it gave Army aviation a real
shot in the arm.
Q: When was your first crash?
A: I buzzed a couple of guys and hit a fence, totaling the plane, and my CO grounded
me for a month. I walked away from that one, no problem. I guess that was when I began to believe I had a charmed life. This is not to say that I thought I was invincible, though. My next crash was during our attempt at taking three Jennys
cross-country. None of the three made it, and I ground looped mine in a freshly
plowed field. The prop was bent, but we had a spare, and the tail was quickly
repaired, so we returned to our base at Rockwell without further mishap. The next
crash was when I was chasing ducks in a Jenny and I crashed the tail on a ridge.
That was slightly embarrassing, and personally painful when I reported to my CO
again. The next was a crash in Florida, where I was taking off on the beach and a
wheel stuck in the sand. I was turned around and a wave hit the landing gear,
flipping me over. The plane was a wreck. Joe was there for that one. I did
eventually finish the flight from Florida to California. In 1924 I broke the tail on
Fokker but landed it. I later crashed another Jenny at MIT. In all my flying I only
made three parachute jumps from aircraft. Some might say those were three too
Q: You had a reputation for getting into trouble, perhaps that was a great part of your
A: Well, Colin, I will tell you that my CO, Colonel Burwell had many reasons to be
irate with me. Once I pulled a stunt that was completely illegal; doing some wing
walking and other things for stunts, and Cecil B. DeMille caught me on camera.
My CO found out about really quickly. He saw the film of me sitting there on the
landing gear under John McCullough’s plane, and he grounded me for another
month. Then as if my bad luck runneth over, I was on duty during this period, so
the only enjoyment I had was riding my motorcycle. I saw a plane coming in to
land and I drove in its path, so the pilot had to go around. I did it again as a joke.
The pilot happened to be my CO, so there I was grounded for another month and
restricted to base. I gave my wife a ride, which was against regulations, and if I
had been caught that would have been the end of me for sure. But I was always a
risk taker. I think any good combat or test pilot has to be.
Q: What made you want to become an aeronautical engineer?
A: I always believed that aircraft designers and pilots should work together to make
the best aircraft possible. So, using this logic I thought that I should better my
own understanding of aerodynamics from the scientific point of view. I believe
that this was the best decision I could have made. I also believed that with proper
training and preparation a pilot could fly in any kind of weather, and with the
development of newer instrumentation, instrument flying was to become all
important, and I wanted to prove it. After I received my BA I was accepted to
MIT for the masters program, which I started in 1923. I must say that without
Joe’s help as both a wife and a secretary I could not have accomplished the course
in the time I did. God bless her for that. My thesis was to test and explain stress
loads on aircraft, using a combination of mathematical and personal observations
and calculations relative to G-forces placed upon both the pilot and the airframe.
This had not been done before, at least not that that extent. I finished my masters
and the thesis was later published and I suppose I became a sort of celebrity
abroad, but here it was basically ignored. Then I began to think about a doctoral
program since I still had a year on my leave from the Army. I submitted my
proposal on wind velocity’s effects upon aircraft performance, and MIT gave me
the nod. However, my first draft was rejected. They wanted more formulas and
less personal observations in order to reinforce my findings, which was something of a setback, but I chose to make it an obstacle to overcome. I finished in 1925.
Q: You give a lot of credit to your wife. How did she handle the war later?
A: Well, I have to say that she was one of the best soldiers I ever knew. With her
sons and husband off fighting the war she became active in several charities,
giving speaking tours, that sort of thing. She even made quite a lot of money from
her speaking engagements, but you know she never kept anything above her own
expenses. With the money she was given by various groups and corporations she
created the Doolittle Fund. This was part of the Air Force Aid Society that helped
widows and children of aircrew who were killed, a very worthwhile organization.
Joe and Bea Arnold [wife of Gen. Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold] ran that operation. Joe
was also heavily involved in the support network of wives and returning airmen
who had been terribly wounded and undergoing rehabilitation. She spoke with the
young wives, helped them through the turmoil, really being as much a mentor as a
guidance counselor of sorts. I can’t tell you how proud I was of her when I
learned of these things later. In 1944 she christened the aircraft carrier USS
Shangri-La, named for the place where president Roosevelt had stated to the
world our Tokyo flight had originated from.
Q: You were also involved in parachute testing, were you not?
A: I was there but there were others who were the chute experts, although we used to
do jumps at air shows. We once dropped a dummy that burned into the ground,
and that got us more than a little attention form some ground observers who
thought that a man had died. However, given that, the gains made in testing
undoubtedly saved thousands of lives in years to come, and of that I am very
proud. I did test flight for altitude and distance, testing the endurance of various
aircraft models. We tried any gimmick we could think of to get funding for long
distance flights, but we met a lot of resistance. There were other tests I did, such
as flying with the turn bank indicator invented by Elmer Sperry, the same fellow
who invented many aviation milestones, including the famous ball turret on our
bombers, the artificial horizon and gyroscope. I was also pleased that I had
finally completed an outside loop. I wanted to know how much stress a plane and
especially the pilot could take. Flying under the hood was a great way to prove the
worth of instrument flying over great distance and inclement weather.
Q: What was the main reason for deciding to strike back at Japan shortly after Pearl
A: It was understood that there had to be some sort of response, if for nothing else
than to lift American morale. But more importantly it was necessary to show
Japan that they were not untouchable. Exposing their vulnerability was in itself a
major part of the operation. I was under no illusion that we would strike any
major blow with regard to tactical, let alone strategic damage with our bombers.
The purpose was psychological all the way around, and I think it worked. I know
it worked for our nation.
Q: How did you train the group for this mission?
A: Well, this story is legendary now, but back then it was one of our most secret
operations. We practiced every method of flight planning and preparation. This
included navigation, short take-offs, applying proper trim and mixture for
sustained long-range flight, as well as fuel conservation. This is over simplifying
the process of course. The selection process was also vigorous, but this had to be the case. Back in those days we did not have the real time intelligence to enable us to comprehend the enemy situation rapidly. For us anything within a few days was good intelligence. Now a days anything over a few hours is almost worthless.
Q: What was the basic plan for the mission?
A: Well, following training and the various qualifications and selections of the air
crews, including the practice runs at Eglin, the plan was hardly complicated. Once
the Navy, in particular the USS Hornet closed to within about 400-500 miles of
the Japanese home islands we would launch the strike with the B-25’s. The plan
was to hit the heart of Tokyo in one pass, then run along the south coast and head
to China. The destination was Chuchow, where we would land, refuel and head on
to Chunking, which was another 800 miles but well within our range, which was
2,400 miles if all went well. The longest distance we were intending to fly was
about 2,000 miles, and we modified the bombers for this. Once the mission was
over we were to fly the airplanes to Burma and hand them over to our forces
Q: How did the weather become a factor?
A: Weather is always a factor in any military operational planning. The good thing
was that we were able to compensate for many factors, such as rain and high
winds once we were airborne. The navigators would have a hard job
compensating for drift and calculating airspeed, since there would be no land
marks until we reached Japan, and then none after that until we reached China
almost 100 miles away. The weather that day was not promising. The seas had
been very high and we were in a storm with high seas that lasted all through the
previous day. The rain had been heavy, and winds were also high. This was a
concern. The morning of the raid the USS Enterprise sent out a scout plane and it
had seen a Japanese fishing boat, which the pilot believed spotted him. This of
course altered our flight plan and we had to launch early. Later another Japanese
vessel was spotted from the Hornet. Then another vessel was sighted and Admiral
Halsey ordered the USS Nashville to sink it. We had intercepted a radio trans-
mission, and this was not welcomed news I can assure you.
Q: What were your thoughts during this time?
A: Last minute changes to a well-laid plan are never good, especially when the
launch forced us to take off much further out than we had planned on. Since we
were not schedules to take off until that afternoon, the alarm informing us to
launch at 0800. We were lucky, since the speed of the Hornet coupled with the
thirty mile per hour headwind meant that we should have plenty of lift.
Q: Please describe the difficulty of that launch.
A: Well, the deck was pitching up and down, and the most important person in our
lives during this process was the deck launch officer. We would have to focus
upon him, and when the deck cleared a swell and rose that was when the signal to
take off would be given. When my crew and I were in the B-25, we fired up the
engines and checked the instruments. The mechanics, especially Sergeant Paul J.
Leonard had meticulously gone over the planes. Nothing was left to chance. Dick
Cole and I were very confident in our crew. Our navigator was Hank Potter, who
was an outstanding individual and navigator. With him we had no doubts that we
would find all of the known points. Having such a crew is a great comfort. After
we lifted off I knew that the others would have no problems.
Q: What was the bombing run like?
A: Pretty uneventful, with exception to a Japanese boat that we passed right over
since we were flying at 200 feet. Following this, with the weather and visibility
getting better we flew a few alternate headings to avoid Japanese forces that may
have detected us, and to prevent further detection. As we approached I decided
that an approach from the north would be the best, as we could continue on the
southerly heading I had planned for. This would also hopefully allow us to avoid
the anti-aircraft batteries. The only aircraft we saw were some biplane trainers, I
guess. No fighters that I saw until later when we spotted nine, and they did not
approach us, which meant that we were probably not expected. As we raced over
the tops of the buildings I saw the factories that were our targets. I climbed to
1,200 feet and ordered the Bombay doors opened, and our bombardier, Fred
Braemer let our ordinance go.
Q: How many bombs did you carry per plane?
A: We only carried four 500 lb. Bombs due to the weight restrictions and to
compensate for the weight of the fuel we had to carry. Like I said, this was not a
major tactical or strategic strike like what would come later. As we flew through
the smoke and dust we headed for the coast. Then we had another problem; Hank
Potter determined we would run out of fuel long before we reached the Chinese
mainland, so I had to make plans for ditching. After seeing sharks below I rapidly
thought about an alternative plan. We were lucky that the headwind turned into a
tailwind, and that is always a plus when you are trying to gain time and cover
more distance on limited resources. I thought that with these factors we may be
able to make the mainland. If so, then we would jump. The weather was closing in
again and rain and light fog was making visibility difficult. We tried to reach
Chuchow on the radio, but that did not work, so we jumped out after I placed the
aircraft on autopilot.
Q: How long were you in the air total?
A: We flew for thirteen hours, and that says a lot about our aircraft and the
marvelous work performed by the mechanics. It also says something about the
quality of American workmanship also. I do remember that I had forgotten to
lower the flaps prior to bailing out, but hindsight is worthless once you are under
Q: This was not your first jump, was it?
A: No, this was my third. In 1926 I had broken my ankles in South America during a
trip to Chile, and this thought was in my head, because I knew that survival and
escape would be difficult enough without serious injuries. But this jump was very
smooth and I landed in a soft rice paddy. Muddy, but unhurt, and I thought about
all of the other men and hoped they would have the same luck. You have been in
Asia, and you know the odor of those rice paddies, since many times they fertilize
with human excrement. As I looked I saw a light and went towards it. I stated
that I was an American in the Chinese we were taught, but the people inside
locked the door and turned out the light. That tended to make you uncomfortable.
Besides, I always had reservations about trusting the Chinese with keeping
secrets. Chiang Kai-Shek was not known for his ability to maintain security
discipline, and I was hoping that there would not be a reception committee for us.
Q: Greg Boyington felt the same way, he never trusted Chiang either. What
A: Well, I was freezing, as it was cold and I was wet; a bad combination. I was also
very hungry. I knew my men would be in at least similar if not worse
circumstances, and this was my greatest concern. I walked until I met a man who
spoke no English, but he seemed to understand, and I followed him to a military
garrison. There was a Chinese major who wanted my Colt .45, which I refused to
hand over. I told my story, and the officer and his men followed me back to where
I landed. After seeing that the parachute was gone, I pointed to the house where I
had knocked. There the farmer and his wife denied anyone knocking, and said
they heard no plane and saw no parachute. The major accused me of lying, until a
couple of soldiers came out of the house with my parachute. This eased things a
Q: What happened with your crew?
A: The soldiers found all of them, and the only injury was Potter, who sprained an
ankle. This was very relieving. We later found the wreckage of our Mitchell but
there was nothing to salvage. I felt that the entire mission had been a failure. I
knew that none of the other planes could have made it to the airstrip at Chuchow.
I thought that I may even face a court-martial. Paul Leonard tried to cheer me up,
and his comments were almost prophetic. He told me that they would make me a
general and give me the Medal of Honor, and I thought that perhaps he had landed
on his head. We had managed to salvage a motion picture camera and a still
camera, but the others in the other aircraft were destroyed.
Q: How did you learn of the fates of the other crews?
A: We found out through intelligence and some of the guys who were later returned.
One crew had been captured by Chinese guerrillas, more than likely the
Communists, and were bound and robbed. Later everything was ironed out. We
also heard that eight of the men had been captured by the Japanese. This was
loosely depicted in the film The Purple Heart, in case you are interested. We also
met an American missionary named John Birch who had managed to evade
capture, and helped us out, and we made Chuchow by variable means eventually.
We knew from another crew that one man and died on bailing out. Birch was later
killed by the Chinese Communists after the war, and the John Birch Society is
named after him. He was a fine man I thought. We learned that five of my men
were in Russia
Q: What happened later?
A: Well, to make a long story short, the press went wild about the event after it was
over and President Roosevelt wanted to see me, so I went to the White House. This was when Paul’s prediction came true. I was promoted to brigadier general
from light colonel, passing a grade, which was rare. I felt proud of my boys also,
they had done all the hard work, really. It was really their moment to shine. Of
course, it was not until much later that it was disclosed that we had launched our
bombers from an aircraft carrier. That was still top secret. Also, the Japanese went
on a rampage all through the province where we landed, killing practically every
man, woman and child to make a point. That was perhaps the greatest tragedy of
our mission. All of that horror was retribution against the Chinese for helping us. I
have read estimates of at least a quarter of a million, perhaps even more people
being murdered. They also exacted their revenge against our captured men, which
I learned of later. Bill Farrow, Harold Spatz and Dean Hallmark were executed;
Bob Meder died in prison, and Rob Hite, Chase Nielsen, George Barr and Jacob
DeShazer survived to return home. The loss of those men has always stayed with
me. When people ask about the atomic bombs and their justification, they come
to mind. In all twenty of us who participated on the raid did not survive the war.
Q: You did meet with General and Madame Chiang?
A: Yes, all of us who survived were taken to the palace and decorated. It was a very
moving moment. This was around April 30 and I had been promoted a couple of
days earlier. Shortly afterward I was ordered home.
Q: What do you think was the greatest benefit of the raid?
A: Well, it did many things. First, it gave the American people hope and a sense of
pride. Second and equally important, the raid placed the Japanese government on
notice; they could be reached. Perhaps not in the immediate future en-masse, but
eventually, and I think even the Japanese people realized this. The next thing it
did was to show our allies that we were in the fight, and we were going to go at it
head on. The psychological impact of the raid both for us and upon the enemy
could not be underestimated. This was manifested by the fact that the enemy
pulled back several top fighter units from the front to defend the home islands,
which would make our job easier later.
Q: What did you do after you returned?
A: I went on a speaking tour, part of the war bonds drive. This lasted a while and I
flew a B-25 around the country, especially to factories and places like that. But, I
must say that the most difficult task was writing the letters to the families of the
dead and missing. That was always the toughest part of being a leader. The men
you lead understand the risks, but their wives, parents and children may have a
harder time understanding. You try and soften the blow as best you can, and hope
that it works out. Later I worked on the planning for the placement of our forces
in Britain for planning the air war against Nazi occupied Europe. This was the
catalyst for the creation of the 8th Air Force on January 28, 1942. This was when
Spaatz went to England with the advance party. The first missions against France
were in August 1942.
Q: How did you get involved in the war after the raid?
A: Well, General MacArthur chose General George C. Kenney to head operations in
the South Pacific, when many people thought he would choose me. That set me
free to go to Europe, but then the decision was made to invade North Africa as the
second front. I was placed in charge of the new 12th Air Force, and I had a
meeting with George Patton, and we went to London to meet with Dwight
Eisenhower, who was in charge of Operation Torch.
Q: What were some of the problems you faced in North Africa?
A: We always had logistical problems, such as fuel and ammunition. One problem
was having enough qualified personnel, especially among the ground crews.
Another gripe I had was the effective area of operations. We had too many
aircraft too close together, a real lesson learned from Pearl Harbor, and our
fighters were based too far away to effectively coordinate air cover and
rendezvous, especially given the variable weather conditions. Perhaps the greatest
concern was the division of assets between the pacific and our theater of
operations. We had to focus upon one or the other first; defeating Germany was
the most critical in everyone’s mind, for a variety of reasons. Finally Churchill
and Roosevelt agreed and we were finally given priority on fuel, ammunition and
personnel. Then there was the Vichy French problem. We had no idea what would
happen once our forces stormed their beaches in Morocco. Then there was the
working relationship with the British. Now, depending upon which general you
spoke to, the situation was different. Patton’s problems with the British was
legendary, but I tended to get along fine with them, at least in the RAF. While in
England preparing to go to Gibraltar in preparation for Torch things worked out
well. Later when I was in England I had no great problems. Interesting enough, on
the way to Gibraltar we were spotted by a flight of Ju-88’s, and that made things
interesting, especially when they attacked us head on and shot out an engine that
was barely operable and wounded the pilot of our B-17. We had some injuries and
we damaged a German medium bomber. After that I always reflected upon how
simple and easy our lot must have been when compared to what our boys flying
over Germany a year later were be going through. Our objective was Tunis as the
British under Montgomery were pushing hard from the east, but we were unable
to get too far too soon. However, I was promoted to major general despite
Eisenhower’s personal feelings towards me on November 20th. This promotion
helped me out with my command. As I said, I had no great personal problems
with the British, but our lack of communication and their general attitude that we
were somewhat backward tended to create operational misunderstandings. We
needed and obtained a higher headquarters element to coordinate all tactical air
operations. This made life a lot easier.
Q: What was the story with the B-26 problem?
A: The Martin B-26 Marauder was a tricky plane to fly and many guys had been
killed in it, therefore it developed a reputation. I took Paul Leonard with me and
we traveled to the various B-26 bases and demonstrated the proper handling and
ease with which the marauder could be flown. After this the trust factor rose
considerably and the men were not reluctant to fly in it. Unfortunately, sometime
later Paul was killed in a bombing raid. That was the saddest letter I ever wrote,
the one to his wife.
Q: What was your next area of operation?
A: The Casablanca Conference decided the next stage; we would invade Sicily and
Italy as part of the second front, which Stalin had been screaming for. Part of the
Casablanca Conference was the Pointblank Directive, which called for the
combined American and British bombing of Germany. This was a major decision,
but Stalin was still unimpressed. The greatest factor of the Conference was the
ultimatum that Germany, Italy and Japan would have to accept unconditional
surrender. Now, this was a great political move, and I think necessary, but it may
have also extended the war, especially for the Japanese and I am certain the senior
Germans who may have considered negotiating once Hitler was gone changed
Q: How did Sicily go?
A: From our air force viewpoint it was a good operation, although the airborne contingent had severe difficulties. Once Patton and Monty got into gear it was only a matter of time. The big test would be Italy. Even while the fighting still
raged for Sicily we were bombing Italian targets, especially ports and airfields, with special attention being paid to railways. However, this was not a practical
application in indiscriminate bombing, unlike British night missions. We had
specific targets to hit, and even more importantly, specific targets not to hit, such
as the Vatican, several monasteries and abbeys. We did not want to destroy the
old world art and treasure. This was actually a great way to practice precision
bombing, and we became very good at it.
Q: The war was not going well on all European fronts, was it?
A: No. Ira Eaker had launched his mass raids into Germany in August through
September 1943, and had lost so many bombers due to the lack of effective long-
range fighter escorts missions into Germany were halted. The Schweinfurt-
Regensburg Raids were expensive, about 120 aircraft, then there were the other
missions. The 9th Air Force lost over fifty B-24’s hitting Ploesti. Then there were
the milk runs into France that were not so easy, especially after the Luftwaffe
waited until the short-legged fighters turned back, then they tore into them. Eaker
pleaded for the new version of the P-51 Mustang to be brought in. He had to wait
until January 1944 for that to happen. We also bombed German targets, such as
Augsburg from our Mediterranean bases, and the losses were also stiff. Shortly
after the 12th was divided into two units; the 12th and 15th Air Forces to divide the
roles of tactical and strategic bombing, especially in the ground support role. I
commanded the 15th. Our first mission was to La Spezia, a port on the Italian
coast. Our raid to Wiener-Neustadt, a fighter production facility cost us eleven
bombers, and we took out some fifty enemy fighters and knocked out the
production facility for about two months. That was a good day. Later on January
3, 1944 I surrendered my command of the 15th to Nate Twining and assumed Ira
Eaker’s 8th Air Force in England. This was in preparation for Operation Overlord.
Q: How was your tenure as CO of the 8th?
A: It was a great time. I had the material assets to do what I wanted, and Ira had done
such a great job from top to bottom I was hoping I would be at least competent.
Spaatz became Air Force Commander, and shortly thereafter I was promoted to
lieutenant general and I had my HQ at High Wycombe.
Q: Some historians credit you with increasing the role of the 8th and winning the war.
How do you feel about that?
A: To be honest, I think that is not true. I assumed control of the 8th when it was just
beginning to receive the large amount of materiel and support that would have
arrived anyway, whether I was there or not. There were others more competent
than myself, Eaker being a prime example, whom would have done no less and
probably more. I was just lucky. I arrived at the time we received the P-51 long
range fighters, and this gave our bombers greater range and protection, so
therefore the results were more dramatic. It was the Mustang that made me look good, and the brave men who flew them protecting our bombers. Prior to that we had British Spitfires, Lockheed P-38 Lightnings and our Republic P-47 Thunder-bolts for escort, but they had limited range. I also decided to visit every base and meet the men. I think that men need to see their commanders and look into their eyes. They need to know that their commanders care about them, and are willing to share the risk, or have been there and done it themselves. It’s all about credibility. This increases morale, which is very important. Another thing I did was change the mission of the fighter pilots. They had been denied authority to pursue enemy fighters for fear of leaving the bombers alone. Now that we had plenty of fighters, I ordered fighter leaders to actively hunt down and destroy enemy fighters on the ground and in the air. The kill ratios among our pilots rose dramatically, and Luftwaffe losses soared from that point forward, and they could never recover in planes and even more importantly, highly skilled pilots. I also ordered ground attack and strafing missions top work the German transportation system over. If it moved, could fly, or support the German war effort, kill it in place. This decision to alter the tactic of the air war brought success, but also criticism. I felt the end would justify the means. History would decide that. Spaatz thought I was wrong and he told me so in very specific terms. Another thing I did was create a scouting force, where a pair of fighters would head out ahead of the bomber formations and provide accurate weather reports. This would save time and fuel, since many groups turned back when the weather became unbearable, despite the most favorable met reports. This proved invaluable. It also gave us decent intelligence on air defenses on many occasions.
Q: You also changed doctrine on required missions for crews, didn’t you?
A: Yes. I believed that if a crew rotated after twenty-five missions that it was a waste of experience. New crews coming in would have to adapt and this would reduce
effectiveness. I eventually raised the tour for bomber crews to thirty-five
missions, since our losses were dropping and our productivity rating rose.
Q: What would you say were the greatest problems facing the 8th when you took
A: The first think I noticed was the high rate of illness and frostbite among the crews.
We tried to alleviate this with giving the crews better electrically heated flight
suits and windows for the waist gunners, since the sub-zero cold and wind created
the problem. The other problem was the weather. All of these events were much
worse in England than anywhere else in the war for me. Another problem was
having better pre-mission intelligence. We had photo reconnaissance aircraft, and
before we planned a mission we would look at the previous mission photos, as
well as photos of intended targets. Then we would assess what had to be done,
how many aircraft, that sort of thing. I wanted every group commander to know to
the letter what was expected. This included the fighter units; rendezvous were
planned to the finest detail. I wanted no bomber formation not lack fighter escort,
and I also wanted the lead fighter groups to pound and strafe to their hearts
content to soften the enemy on the ground. We also placed greater emphasis on
secondary and alternative targets in case weather forced a group to abort the
primary target. All crews were debriefed upon their return, so the boys had a long
day all the way around. I also wanted a more effective turn around time on the
aircraft, maximum effort from all echelons, including ground personnel. I must
say that these guys repairing and working on the planes were the real reason for
our success, and I feel they have not had their full due in the history books.
Q: I have interviewed dozens of pilots from several nations, and all of them agreed
on one point-the shuttle missions to the Soviet Union created great problems for
the Germans. You were instrumental in that, right?
A: Yes. This is a major issue, because our relations with the Russians was always
tenuous. I proposed the idea that our bombers, taking off from England fly on to
western Russia, where they would rearm and refuel. It would also give the men a
break. Plus, it also confused the Luftwaffe, as they were wondering where the
formations were going. With the limited range of their fighters, they could not
follow. What they did was land after a two hour battle, refuel and rearm, and
catch the bombers on the way back from their targets. Once the shuttle mission
was created it changed that to a large degree in our favor. It saved planes and
aircrew, no doubt. I even spoke to our mutual friend, General Adolf Galland about
that several times and he agreed that the shuttle missions inhibited the German
flak and fighters from wreaking even more damage upon us. It worked well and
was coordinated with the 15th Air Force based in Italy. We called it Operation
Frantic, and first mission from England was on June 21, 1944 led by Archie Old..
The 15th had already flown the first missions on June 2 with no losses to enemy
action. Old had over forty aircraft destroyed and about twenty-five damaged. We
also lost fifteen P-51s, as I recall. They flew from Russia to Italy on the 26th.
Q: How did the Soviets respond?
A: They were a strange group. They kept demanding a second front, so we obliged,
first in Africa then southern and Western Europe. But when it came to helping
defeat German industry, which was fine as long as we kept within our sphere of
influence. I read many reports from leaders stating the cold reception they
received, the lack of active support, unless it was to refuel them quickly and get
them the hell out of there. Then we had the problem of interned crews and
aircraft. After the war this became a severe issue, one that Ira Eaker took up
personally. I can tell you that LeMay was no friend of the Soviets, just like Patton.
I think Curtis would have been just as happy planning targets in Russia once
Germany surrendered. You interviewed him, so I guess you have your own
opinion. That is not to say he was not a great commander and leader. He just saw
things differently. I would have to say that of all my plans, this was the one which
just failed, in my opinion. The Soviets did not want us there and they never hid
their displeasure at our boys being on their soil. I would say the Cold War was
already in effect; only the current war delayed its progression.
Q: You were opposed to the British method of strategic bombing. Did you ever have
a chance to meet Sir Arthur Harris?
A: Yes, shortly after I met with King George VI. I made an appointment, we talked
for a few minutes, and he said I was welcome to visit him whenever I wished. I
will say this; Harris was a true warrior and he would take no nonsense, from
anyone. We got along together very well.
Q: The king made you a Knight of the Bath. What was that like?
A: Well, I don’t really know why, but it was an honor. I always got a good chuckle
about that. I could never see myself arriving at a function and being heralded as
Q: What was your impression of Winston Churchill?
A: I knew him well, and I always thought that he was one of the most informed and
knowledgeable men I ever met. He was just what the British needed. I admired
Q: I have interview Adolf Galland several times, as well as many of the pilots who
survived the western Front, and we spoke about ‘Big Week’ and their interpretation of how effective it was. What is your opinion?
A: Well, February 1944 was a busy month, but from the 19th to the 25th I had planned
a series of saturation missions; thousand bomber formations escorted by hundreds
of fighters to strike as deep as possible into the heart of Nazi Germany. I felt that
if wee could destroy the German fighters in the air by luring them up, their losses
could not be replaced, especially among the pilots. In addition, it would further
our Pointblank directive; the destruction of everything of material value, thus
limiting Germany’s ability to wage effective warfare. All of this was to reduce
German assets prior to Overlord. ‘Big Week’ proved effective and justified my
decision, because we had minimal losses, but the Germans paid a high price in
planes and pilots even before, and after ‘Big Week’ German aircraft production
was rapidly reduced. Galland even admitted that to me, despite the fact that
Germany turned out more planes in 1944 than at any other time during the war.
Planes with pilots and fuel are worthless. Galland told me he lost 1,000 pilots
between January and April 1944, with over 400 going down during ‘Big Week.’ I
would also state that you could estimate our effectiveness by the thousands of
German motorized vehicle we captured intact, without any damage. They had
simply run out of gas.
Q: You flew the Tokyo mission and flew in Africa and the Mediterranean Theaters.
Why were you not allowed to fly after taking over the 8th Air Force?
A: Two main reasons: first I had been briefed on Ultra, the code breaking system
that read the German Enigma messages. No one knowledgeable of this was
allowed the risk of being captured. The war effort depended upon complete
secrecy, as history has proven to be the case. I had also been thoroughly briefed
on the plans for Overlord, so I had a double whack against me. I still flew in
England, but my active participation was over.
Q: Please describe D-Day as you saw it.
A: I took a P-38 with Pat Partridge as my wingman and we flew over the beaches and
Channel. I will never forget that sight; thousands of ships, landing craft and
support vessels. It was incredible. D-Day went off without a hitch for our boys.
But later I was called on the carpet, literally, when a bombing mission had gone
wrong. Several bombers dropped their loads short while supporting the ground
advance, and about 100 men were killed with another 500 or so wounded, and one
of the dead was Army General Leslie McNair. I took the responsibility, but I
always felt that those were not the kind of missions we should have been doing in
large strategic bombers anyway. This was tactical work and should have been
treated as such. I felt sure after my ass chewing from General Walter ‘Beetle’
Smith that I would be replaced, so I spoke to Tooey Spaatz. Somehow I kept my
job. The ironic part was that Ike wanted these missions continued, and more
Americans died as a result, but the losses were considered acceptable.
Q: What was your opinion of men like Eisenhower, Carl Spaatz, ‘Hap’ Arnold,
Curtiss LeMay, Ira Eaker, Patton, George Marshal, and other contemporaries?
A: Well, first I have to say that Spaatz and Eaker became good friends of mine early
on just after WW I. Hap Arnold was a colonel then and our CO of Rockwell Field
at that time. Although we all had our differences of opinion later, we all respected
each other. Now, Curtiss LeMay was a great leader and a true warrior, but I did
not get to know him until much later. I think that Arnold was perhaps the greatest
man in our Air Force, Billy Mitchell notwithstanding. He was a true leader and
innovator, and he cared about what his subordinates thought. He would never
think twice when he as a general wanted a lieutenant’s opinion on a matter. He
used to talk to enlisted mechanics without fanfare. He was like Omar Bradley, he
had a knack for obtaining unquestioned loyalty from his men. That is a rare gift.
Eisenhower was a good leader, although I was always under the impression that
he never really liked me or had a lot of faith in me. I think his professional
opinion changed later, but his personal opinions were his own. As far as Mitchell
went, he was truly the best long-range planner and supporter of air power. His
court-martial was a political side-show; he ruffled too many feathers with his
hard-line beliefs that the next war would be defined and won by air power above
all else. The fact that he was proven correct only adds to his credibility. In 1921 I
spent some time with him, and he was a very impressive man. This was at Langley Field, Virginia, and I preformed my first practice bombing on ships at
sea. This was invaluable training. But Mitchell was also a visionary with regard to his prognostication of Japan’s future attitude towards us, and he even stated that war between our two countries was inevitable. This among other factors contributed to his demise. It was such a shame to lose such an officer. Hap Arnold was a great leader and he encouraged his generals to correspond with him directly on any and all matters. This was truly a great benefit in many ways. Marshal was also a wonderful man who understood the needs of leaders and subordinates. His insight into the mind of his subordinates was legendary, and I like him very much.
Q: Given the post-war criticism of bombing Dresden, what is your opinion today of
A: Dresden was just one of several cities to be bombed in order to halt German
reinforcements from arriving at the front. The Soviets wanted Dresden bombed,
and I ordered the strikes. The British had already been busy there. It was later that
we learned about the high number of civilian casualties, and that was indeed
tragic. David Irving wrote his book, which I read, and I think he got the entire
scenario wrong. We never intended to bomb any civilians, that was a British
operation. The entire premise of our planning was strategic in nature; hitting
military and economic targets. Terrible things happen in wartime, of that there is
no debate. Bt to think that any American commander would simply bomb
civilians is unacceptable. We are not bread for that. Even Hiroshima and Nagasaki
were military targets, and the Japanese were warned in advance. It is easy to
criticize from the comfort of a typewriter with unfamiliar hindsight. I still think
dropping the atomic bombs was the right thing to do. It shortened the war and
saved Allied lives. That in itself is justification. They started, and we had the
God given right; no, the moral duty to end that war the quickest way possible. Do
I feel bad about the civilian casualties? Yes, but American lives were at stake, so
that is all that needs to be said. End of story. You were a soldier, you know what I
am talking about.
Q: As the war wound down, how did your mission change?
A: By April there was nothing of any great value left to bomb, and most of the
country was occupied. We switched to operating in a tactical role. When the war
was over I gave authorization for about 30,000 8th Air Force personnel to fly over
Germany to see what we had done. I wanted every man to take the image home
and see for himself what the effort was all about. I then returned home and saw
Joe, and we had a well-deserved vacation. Later Joe I joined Patton and his wife
Beatrice for a West Coast speaking tour, which was a real time. I finally got to
the Pacific Theater and landed at Kadena, Okinawa on July 17, 1945, after a wild
ride that saw us abandon our B-29 and finish the excursion in a B-17.
Q: How did you learn of the atomic bomb?
A: I found out first hand when Chuck Sweeny landed at my base due to a fuel
shortage after hitting Nagasaki. That was how I knew. He came right into my office for his debriefing.
Q: You witnessed the signing of the Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri. What
was that like?
A: It was a very somber and moving experience, almost surreal. As soon as the
formalities were over a mass formation of bombers and fighters flew overhead. It
was truly a glorious moment and I was blessed that I was able to be there.
Q: Your sons were in the war, were they not?
A: Jim was a combat pilot in the Pacific and John was in West Point when I was
assigned to the North African command. Later Jim was assigned to the 9th Air
Force and we had contact. Our first grandchild, James Doolittle III. was born in
September 1944, the next generation.
Q: How did you close out your remarkable service record?
A: I retired in 1946 and went to work for Shell, while on terminal leave from active
duty. I did a lot of traveling again, but no one was shooting at me. Then I worked
for TRW and Aerospace Corporation. I took up hunting again late in life, and
enjoyed it immensely. I stayed with Joe a lot when I ‘retired’ in my late 70’s or
so, until she passed away. I miss her and Jim, Jr. She is buried in Arlington, where
I will be one day.
Q: What would you say are the best qualities indicative of a great leader?
A: Well, first of all, I would not even begin to state that I was a great leader. I was
adequate and accomplished the missions. But to answer your question, I would
say that the following are critical and non-negotiable: integrity, morality,
understanding, accepting responsibility for your actions, and providing
encouragement and praise when necessary. Let the men know they can trust you,
and that you have their best interest at heart, and they will follow you anywhere.
Live by the same rules you enforce, and never waiver from a sound well thought
out decision even in the face of stiff criticism. These are the traits that define a
great leader, as well as a great man. I made my mistakes; I was not perfect.
However, I never placed blame upon anyone else for anything that occurred under
my command. That is the first trait of a bad leader. Plus, to be a good leader you
have to follow orders as well, and not just the ones you like. Men will follow you
if they have faith in you, no doubt. But they will fight and even die if they respect
you and you have their loyalty. That is earned, not given.