I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: An Autobiography of James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle

I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: An Autobiography of James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle with Carroll V. Glines

This is one of those extremely rare literary pairings where the top man in a field collaborates on his autobiography with a top writer who knows the subject. “Jimmy” Doolittle is regarded by everyone as a seminal figure in aviation, a record-setting recipient of the Medal of Honor and a leader in science. “Cee Vee” Glines is unquestionably one of the top aviation writers, and has specialized in brilliant biographies. A USAF Command Pilot, Glines doesn’t make any of the mistakes that a non-aviator might, no matter how excellent a writer—c.f. Tom Wolf’s “The Right Stuff.”

Jimmy Doolittle (date unknown)

Jimmy Doolittle (date unknown)

One can immediately sense how closely the two men worked together, for the books reads exactly as if Jimmy Doolittle is talking to you. Doolittle is famous for his frank, friendly but succinct style, and the autobiography brings you the not the essence but the very being of a man whose extraordinary career spanned nine decades.

Doolittle is best known for leading the famous 18 April 1942 raid on Tokyo, and the book begins with the ultimate insider’s look at that fateful mission. No one knew it better nor could recount it as well as Doolittle. He presents the raid from start to finish, bailing out of a fuel-empty North American B-25 in the wilds of China. The general details of the mission are well known, but far from being the failure that Doolittle considered it at the time, the raid achieved much more than had been planned for it. President Roosevelt and Doolittle’s seniors had hoped that the sixteen-bomber strike would boost American morale at a time when all military news was catastrophic. The raid boosted morale enormously, but more important, the Japanese reacted to the loss of face with an ill-considered decision to attack Midway Island. This set them up for the defeat that reversed the course of the war.

Every decade of Doolittle’s long life was exciting and productive. The book paints a moving portrait of Doolittle’s humble hard-scrabble beginnings in Nome Alaska. There young Jimmy, a fighter from the age of five, proved that poverty, a relatively small stature, and no apparent advantages would not bar success, no matter what the odds. His combatant nature is revealed when, at age twelve, his father falsely accused him of lying. In his invariably laconic style, Doolittle writes simply “I didn’t lie then and I don’t lie now. I told him that when I was big enough, I was going to whip him.”

Doolittle had to whip many people, airplanes and events in his lifetime, and he did it always with the same deductive thought processes that made him, in Glines’ words, a “master of the calculated risk.” A boxing coach brought his flailing aggression under control and introduced him to the subtleties of anticipation, feinting and balance, all qualities he would use in aviation. A five foot, four inch bantam-weight he fought successfully as an amateur and a professional just before meeting his first love and acknowledged salvation—Josephine Daniels, his beloved “Joe.”. “Joe” became the keel and rudder of the ship of his career, and as Bob Hope’s wife Dolores said at a 1984 Criss Award ceremony: “He spent 45 years in the air. Joe Doolittle spent 45 years waiting for him to land…”

The true meaning of the book’s title becomes apparent as the incredible details of Doolittle’s life are recounted—a sometimes madcap Air Service flying, earning both masters and doctoral degrees in science at MIT, and his many racing triumphs. These included winning the Schneider Cup and both Bendix and Thompson Trophies, flying the hottest aircraft of the era. At any time, a single miscalculation could easily have ended in a crash, for it was Doolittle’s custom to push his aircraft to the limits, and when science demanded, beyond. Racing fans will revel in his approach to the then notorious Gee Bee R-1 as he says “…I didn’t trust this little monster. It was fast but flying it was like balancing a pencil or an ice cream cone on the tip of your finger” He decided that “it would be prudent to stay outside of the rest of them (the other racers) and climb before the pylons, dive before each turn, but remain outside.”

As thrilling the accounts of his legendary flying are, many people will find the autobiography’s most rewarding gift to be an understanding of the depth and breadth of Doolittle’s vision, scientific capacity and leadership qualities in peace and war. Only Glines’ experience as a pilot could enable him to convey so well the manifold achievements that Doolittle often glossed over.

The modern ability of pilots to fly safely on instruments in heavy weather and at night can be traced back directly to Doolittle’s work with cockpit instruments and “blind flying.” He himself said that “This work was, I believe, my most significant contribution to aviation.” Doolittle comments on his first true instrument flight on September 24, 1929 in his typical low-key manner. After a quick recital of being the first person to take off, fly a circuit and land while completely on instruments, he ends by saying “However, despite all my previous practice, the approach and landing were sloppy.” This is roughly like Alexander Fleming saying “I discovered penicillin, but my Petri dish had a smear on it.”

Although Doolittle violated military custom by leaving the service to serve in the reserves for a decade, he returned to it in 1940 with gusto. The Tokyo Raid was but the beginning of his contributions, for he rose to command the mighty 12th, 15th and 8th Air Forces. At the 8th he changed the course of the war by putting its fighters on the offensive, rather than just being bomber defenders, and in doing so broke the back of the Luftwaffe.

This is a marvelous book that improves with each re-reading because it is so content laden. Glines was the perfect person to write the book with the author, letting Doolittle be Doolittle, but making sure that incredible number of salient facts are presented. I urge a reader new to the book to scan the Career Summary on page 517. It will prime your pump for the staggering series of accomplishments that one of America’s greatest heroes achieved in both civil and military roles. He is, to my knowledge, the only man to be awarded both the Medal of Honor (for the Tokyo Raid) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom . No library should be without this book, and no writer should attempt either an autobiography or a biography without studying its style.

(Editor’s Note: For a completely different perspective on the raid, read “The Doolittle Raid’s Ringside Seats” presented by Defense Media Network.

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