I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: An Autobiography

  • Published

I Could Never Be So Lucky Again: An Autobiography by General James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle with Carroll V. Glines. Schiffer Publishing, 1994, 622 pp.

In his autobiography, Gen James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle reflects on his more than 90 years of living on this earth, proposing that “I Could Never Be So Lucky Again.” For a man who gained recognition as one of the early pioneers of American aviation, led the famous raid on Tokyo in 1942, received the Medal of Honor, commanded the mighty Eighth Air Force at the most critical time of the European air campaign during World War II, succeeded as a business executive, and witnessed the twentieth century’s full range of progress, his choice of a title for his book conveys the man’s genuine humility, notwithstanding his tremendous accomplishments. Ultimately the formula works well, and Doolittle’s account of his life is worthy of any professional’s bookshelf for its history, relevance, and personal message. For someone who believes that “if a man leaves the earth a better place than he found it, then his life has been worthwhile” (p. 539), his autobiography represents a fitting coda to his life and achievements.

At more than 530 pages of narrative, Doolittle’s autobiography is a bit long, but because he uses simple language to relate his accounts in a storytelling style and paces all of the vignettes effectively, the text reads quickly and easily. Even in his advanced years, Doolittle’s recollection remains sharp and detailed—in some cases, perhaps too much so. Historians and aficionados of World War II airpower may appreciate the detail, but others may not. For example, the intricate, technical discussion of the development of flight instrumentation in the late 1920s is somewhat distracting, albeit historically significant. In this particular case, however, Doolittle regains the human element by interjecting aspects of his family life. In fact, he employs the common literary device of discussing family and correspondence throughout the book to reinforce the very personal nature of his undertaking.

The fact that many lessons drawn from Doolittle’s experiences remain applicable today makes his story keenly relevant. Some people tend either to forget or not realize that the interwar years—and certainly World War II—witnessed some of the most rapid development of technology in history. Doolittle played a key role in these events, recognizing then, as we do now, the importance of skill, discipline, technical knowledge, and the constant drive to continuously test the limits of performance, design, and speed. His advocacy of high-octane fuel when conventional wisdom labeled it “Doolittle’s Folly” (p. 191) illustrates his accurate foresight of the convergence of several technological trends. At a more strategic level, his entire experience in the European theater during the war, first as commander of Twelfth Air Force and then of Eighth Air Force, provides an excellent examination of the pitfalls, friction, and politics of joint and coalition operations, as well as the burdens of expectation assumed by commanders. Doolittle notes difficulties with the media and prejudices emanating from regular officers (something familiar to him since he served as a reservist). Throughout the book, he also espouses the importance of the people around him, especially those under his command. For example, he characterizes decorations as “such a small payment, for such a large service” (p. 365). Today’s professionals can use these and several other vignettes as touchstones relevant to current issues.

One’s initial impression from the title of the book, given Doolittle’s well-known raid on Tokyo in the spring of 1942, is that it refers to his success in bombing Tokyo and producing a great psychological and strategic victory for America six months after Pearl Harbor. Taken as a whole, however, the book’s coverage of Doolittle’s life demonstrates his penchant for preparedness, ingenuity, courage, and resolve. At nearly every turn and in nearly every vignette, the narrative resonates with a common theme of “good fortune perched on the cowl” (p. 77). In light of the sheer volume of Doolittle’s extraordinary exploits, the reader could easily interpret this statement as an instance of false modesty but for the fact that his self-effacing character, humility, goodwill, and gratitude course throughout the book, in reference not only to his professional successes and calculated risk taking but also to his personal life.

Appropriately, one has the sense that this story is in fact a very personal work. Doolittle shares his recollection of successes, blunders, and (what he considered at the time) abject failures. His reflection on how he felt after his crash landing in China following the Tokyo raid—his sincere belief that he had utterly failed and that his aviation career was over—is strikingly telling in this regard, given the historical significance and success of the raid. His candor and humility are a refreshing shift from much of the biographical material available on famous personages—warriors, especially—which tends to parlay no shortage of bravado and self-aggrandizement. By contrast, in August 1945 when Doolittle commanded Eighth Air Force, he learns of the imminent Japanese surrender and receives word from higher command authorities that “if [he] wanted the 8th Air Force bombers to be in combat with the Japanese, [he] had better get an operation going” (p. 454). Doolittle declined, not willing to risk his crews or cause additional casualties and damage just so the Eighth could boast that it had bombed both Berlin and Tokyo. Additionally, some of his first and final thoughts express his devotion to Joe, his beloved wife and friend for over 70 years. Their affection for each other and their family through all of the tremendous upheavals of the interwar years and the war itself would inspire any military couple or family. Indeed, in this regard one might even interpret the subtext of the narrative as a love story.

In sum, Doolittle’s autobiography is very enjoyable and a highly recommended candidate for one’s personal or professional library. It strikes the reader as a very high horsepower, candid, and detailed historical account of the origins of American airpower and the life of one of America’s greatest Airmen. We come to know this Airman, engineer, daredevil pilot, business leader, Medal of Honor recipient, general, and (most importantly, as the subtext reveals) loving husband and father. The main thread of the narrative, of course, recounts Doolittle’s experiences as a military aviator. However, taken in total, his life remains relevant to issues facing twenty-first-century professionals. Regardless of the reader’s profession, I Could Never Be So Lucky Again offers valuable insights from a man who actively participated in the birth of airpower, served as a critical leader in the conflagration of World War II, lived through the beginning and end of the Cold War, and witnessed the advent of modern air and space power in Operation Desert Storm. Doolittle led a unique, exciting, and successful life, owing to his tremendous inquisitiveness, humility, ingenuity, confidence, courage, and resolve. One could argue it was not he, but we, who were lucky.

Col Darren Buck, USAFR

Tyndall AFB, Florida

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."