Gen. Jimmy Doolittle in England in 1982.

Gen. Jimmy Doolittle in England in 1982. (Art Barnes/Stars and Stripes)

MILDENHALL, England (S&S) — Jimmy Doolittle breaks into a grin as he recalls his days as commander of 8th Air Force almost 40 years ago.

At that time, U.S. airplanes in England numbered 2,000 heavy bombers and 1,000 long-range fighters at some 76 airfields and American airmen were members of the Army Air Forces.

Last week, the 86-year-old retired lieutenant general visited here before and after a London reunion of fliers of 8th AF and the RAF Bomber Comd of World War II.

His wartime headquarters was at High Wycombe, near London, but 8th AF has since moved to Barksdale AFB, La., by way of Westover AFB, Mass.

Today, the 3rd Air Force is the parent command for Air Force units in England, comprised of about 375 aircraft at six main operating bases.

The formidable mission of Doolittle's command in 1944 was to prepare the continent for the Allied D-Day invasion.

Just shy of two years before Doolittle took command of 8th AF as a three-star general on Feb. 22, 1944, he was a lieutenant colonel. But he won the Medal of Honor and promotion to brigadier general on April 18, 1942, when he led a flight of 16 B-25 bombers from the deck of the carrier Hornet for the first bombing of the Japanese mainland, four months and 11 days after the U.S. Pacific Fleet was attacked at Pearl Harbor.

Bomb damage to Japan was slight, but historians credit Doolittle's raid with boosting allied morale at a time when such a boost was badly needed.

Of the original 80 crew members, two drowned when they ditched their plane off the Chinese coast, three were executed by the Japanese, one died in captivity and 12 were killed in action in Europe.

Of the 49 crewmen still living, 31 attended a 40th anniversary reunion last month in St. Petersburg, Fla.

After the Japan raid, Doolittle became the original commander of 12th Air Force in North Africa. Then 15th Air Force was formed from the 12th and Doolittle took the new unit to Italy.

When he moved from Italy to take command in England, "8th Air Force was made up of about 1,000 bombers and longrange fighters. We were just getting more P-51 s (replacing P-38s), which greatly increased the capacity of the fighter force 'to cope with German fighters and to protect the bombers," he recalled.

Between February and June 1944, Doolittle's force grew to 2,000 bombers and 1,000 fighters.

"By taking a few airplanes that weren't particularly airworthy, we were able to put one operation up which had something over 3,000 airplanes. We were ordinarily putting out about 1,500 bombers as a normal, important operation," he said.

"We were never able to stop the Germans producing fighter aircraft," said Doolittle. "But they began running into problems of fuel and replacement of their competent senior fighter pilots. Some of the young replacements were not experienced."

His bombers' mission was to cripple the Axis war-making machinery. "Our job was to destroy the German ability to wage war. First, we wanted to destroy their fighter planes, and we did — not as fast as they were able to make them, but to the point where they could only come up to attack periodically toward the end of the war. They would have to save fuel and the crews were no-ways near as confident as the earlier crews. I would suspect they were getting down to the bottom of their fighter pilot barrel ... the same as in Japan toward the end, where they trained a Kamikaze pilot just enough to fly where they wanted him to go and dive in with his bomb load."

Air strikes against the German warwaging ability laid the groundwork for the invasion of France, for which Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower told his troops, "Don't worry about the planes overhead. They'll be ours."

One thousand RAF bombers and 1,400 U.S. bombers attacked continental targets while almost 3 million men — American, British, Canadian, French and Polish — crossed the English Channel on June 6, 1944, to invade France.

Today, Doolittle occasionally relives the war years at reunions. In London, "it was a fine get-together ... a joint reunion of the RAF Bomber Comd and 8th Air Force. A lot of old friends got together and exchanged confidences," he said.

After the war, he reverted to the reserve status from which he'd been called to active duty.

Doolittle first became a reserve officer in 1921 after enlisting in the aviation section of the Army Signal Corps in 1917 and earning his pilot's wings in 1918. "In 1930, I resigned as a regular in the Army Air Corps, went into the reserves and became the aviation manager of Shell Oil — at three times the salary I was getting as a first lieutenant. All I remember is my military salary was minuscule."

During his years with Shell in St. Louis, before and after his wartime service, he helped develop advanced fuels for military aircraft advancing into the jet age.

Doolittle retired from the Air Force Reserve at age 60 — the only reservist in any service to attain three-star rank. "Before turning in my flying suit, I checked out in the F-100, B-47, B-52 and KC-135. They were all excellent airplanes."

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