Jimmy Doolittle remembered by granddaughter

Photo descriptions: Jonna Doolittle-Hoppes lecturing during the symposium and posing beside Fantasy of Flight’s Gee-Bee R-2 reproduction. (Credits: John Stemple)

On April 15, 2011, visitors filled the “Officer’s Club” at Fantasy of Flight in Polk City, Fla. Inside the venue, Jonna Doolittle Hoppes, Jimmy Doolittle’s granddaughter, shared personal insights into the life of one of America’s most famous aviators and icons. The appearance was part of a Fantasy of Flight symposium titled “Calculated Risk: The Extraordinary Life of Jimmy Doolittle.” Afterward, Jonna signed copies of her book Calculated Risk: The Extraordinary Life of Jimmy Doolittle – Aviation Pioneer and World War II Hero.

Calculated RiskMs. Hoppes revealed to the audiences that her famous relative was a devoted and loving family man. In her lectures Jonna also freely offered less known information about Josephine Daniels, who became Jimmy’s very supportive wife and her grandmother.

Jonna explained to the appreciative audience that, between World War I and World War II, James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle’s job was to promote aviation and to make it look fun. This he did with zeal, setting many records in the sky. As a result, Doolittle became a celebrity.

During her talks Jonna Hoppes pointed out that Jimmy Doolittle, unfairly branded an incautious daredevil pilot by the media, in practice always carefully considered risk relating to flying and applied this same analytical thinking to challenges. It is such a process that permitted him to master the fast but dangerous “Gee Bee R-1” racer and win the 1932 Thompson Trophy Race at Cleveland, Ohio.

Perhaps best known for the “Doolittle Raid,” Jonna stated that Jimmy was most proud of his earlier achievements relating to “blind” or instrument flying. These made flying practical and safe at night and in less than ideal weather. This enabled pilots to routinely fly around the clock.

Another fact Jonna provided is that Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower was not initially enthusiastic about having Doolittle on his staff, due to the media-created image of Jimmy. However, Eisenhower’s acceptance of Doolittle proved to be wise and fruitful. Under the future president’s command, Jimmy eventually proved William L. “Billy” Mitchell’s concept of utilizing strategic airpower. Additionally, Doolittle was instrumental in permitting escorting fighter pilots to pursue enemy aircraft whenever feasible. This policy helped to eliminate many of Germany’s best interceptor aircrews.

Not overlooked by Ms. Hoppes were details about Jimmy Doolittle’s philosophy of leadership. He was not an armchair general and would often accompany his crews on bombing missions until forbidden by those holding higher rank. Doolittle’s willingness to share in the danger of combat operations made him quite popular with his men.

Jimmy Doolittle, Jonna stated, was a man who led by example. Jonna provided a number of examples of his leadership, but one in particular demonstrated his “hands on” and “by example” command styles. She stated that her grandfather was of the opinion that an officer should share the same experiences as his or her subordinates and be competent in the aircraft types his aviators were assigned. Therefore, being a commander of combat aviators, Doolittle insisted upon flying missions; his superiors disapproved of this propensity.

One incident Ms. Hoppes cited is also contained (page 302) in Jimmy’s 1991 book I Could Never Be So Lucky Again. Doolittle writes about an incident that occurred shortly after he arrived in North Africa: “While I was flying, General Eisenhower . . . sent word that he wanted me over there [Gibraltar] ‘right now!’ He was told that I was flying a Spitfire.” Doolittle continues, “As soon as I reported to Ike, I could see he was very upset. He wanted to know why I was flying instead of being on the ground commanding my units. I told him that I felt it was my duty to test fly and new aircraft assigned to my command — that is was a clear responsibility for every air force commander.”  Eisenhower curtly replied by stating the following: “You can either be a major and fly Spitfires or you can be a general and be my senior air officer down here.” Despite angering General Eisenhower, James Doolittle was duly promoted to the rank of major general in the reserves.

Although a general, Jimmy Doolittle often put his life on the line by continuing to fly combat missions. In fact, on D-Day, Jimmy, the commander of the Eighth Air Force, piloted a Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter above the beaches of France as Allied armies went ashore.

Jonna further pointed out that Jimmy Doolittle persevered through adversity. Over the course of his military career Jimmy had to overcome erroneous press reports and misquotes, jealousies on the part of contemporaries and flight surgeons’ concerns (I Could Never Be So Lucky Again, page 21) about the heart murmur he developed. Through determination and a desire to continue to improve himself and his knowledge Doolittle achieved great success. Jonna Hoppes’ salient and concluding point was that everyone should follow a similar approach to life.

Notably, Fantasy of Flight owns several aircraft types that Jimmy Doolittle flew. The facility is restoring a DH-4 and P-38. It also maintains a reproduction of a Gee Bee racer, a North American B-25 Mitchell and a Supermarine Spitfire.

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The author (John Stemple) would like to thank Jonna Hoppes for her gracious cooperation.

Suggested Reading

Doolittle, James H. and Glines, Carroll V. I Could Never Be So Lucky Again. New York: Batam Books, 1991.

Hoppes, Jonna Doolittle. Calculated Risk: The Extraordinary Life of Jimmy Doolittle — Aviation Pioneer and World War II Hero. Santa Monica: Santa Monica Press, 2005.

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