"One of the greatest compliments I ever received," said Jimmy Doolittle "was from an old hard-rock Virginia City miner who told me, "Kid there's no shit in your neck."" The year was 1917.
Most of us know Doolittle as the hero of the 1944 movie Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. Doolittle, played by Spencer Tracy, led sixteen B25 bombers launched from the carrier USS Hornet in a retaliation raid against Japan in April of 1942-four months after Pearl Harbor. It was a gutsy escapade pitting the twin-propped medium bombers against the Japanese mainland in America's own surprise attack. The planes ran out of gas, forcing all but one of the plane's crews to bail out over China (one plane landed safely in Russia.) While the attack did little physical damage, the psychological impact was immense. The Japanese government and military believed Japan was invulnerable from aerial attack. At the same time it lifted America's spirits-after a string of seemingly endless military defeats and reversals.
Doolittle was a small man-a scrapper who loved to box and knock down bigger opponents. He was marshaled through troubled teenage years by a loving mother. His parents had split when he was seven. He was a street fighter with a flailing but effective style. At 14 his high school English teacher observed him flaying his arms in a schoolyard scrap. The teacher, Forest Bailey, chided him that getting mad and losing his temper would only serve to "lose a fight because you let your emotions instead of your head rule your body." And so Bailey, a boxer himself, taught the diminutive kid how to "feint, balance, target his blows, and anticipate what an opponent was going to do." They were lessons that served him well throughout his life.
The following year he won the West Coast Amateur Championship "as a flyweight at 105 pounds." In 1913 he moved into the bantam weight class and fought 13 bouts "and won or fought all of them to a draw." According to Doolittle his mother didn't like his boxing: "My split lips, swollen eyes, and facial bruises couldn't be ignored." That same year he got into a brawl with a truck driver who pushed Jimmy's date down a flight of stairs. Doolittle was arrested. Because he was a minor, the police notified his mother who let him stay in jail for the weekend to teach him a lesson. "Mother had obviously decided it was time I learned a lesson," he wrote, continuing "being incarcerated in a cold, unheated cell for two nights was a shocking experience."
To encourage him to give up boxing, his mother gave him a motorcycle. He complied with the "spirit of her request but not the letter." He started boxing professionally using the name Jimmy Pierce. He used the motorcycle "as an economic way to get to my boxing matches." It was an easy way for the high school junior to earn money. "I motorcycled up and down the [California] coast, entering bouts in the various boxing clubs that were so popular then." He either won all his bouts or fought to a draw and would earn as much as $30 a fight [$675 in current values].
In 1915 he enrolled in Los Angeles Junior College where he spent two years studying mining engineering. Besides the occasional boxing match, he financed his college by working in the Comstock mines in Virginia City, Nevada during the summer-as a hard rock miner-pushing tram cars, "digging with a pick and shovel," and drilling holes for powder blasts. In 1917, he was admitted to the University of California Berkeley, School of Mines. The summer between his junior and senior years (1917-1918) was one the most memorable of his life.
He hired out as a hard rock miner with the Union Sierra Nevada Mining Company. One blustery summer day the cage that took the miners to the 2,900' level of the mine broke. The two men in the cage "plummeted to the bottom of the shaft." Because of his size (5'4" and 130 pounds) and first aid training, Doolittle was selected among those who volunteered to be "lowered down the shaft on a rope" to ascertain the condition of the men in the cage. He was slowly lowered down into the earth's bowels-his only light an acetylene lamp on his miners cap. At 2,700 feet, the light began to dim, indicating oxygen deprivation and the men on the surface "sprayed water down the shaft to try to get