Pearl Harbor's Avenger

updated 10/11/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/11/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

HE WAS AN AVIATION PIONEER WHO Specialized in the impossible. He was the first to fly coast-to-coast in under 24 hours, the first to fly "blind," relying solely on instruments. But when James Doolittle died last week, at 96, only one mission sprang to mind. On April 18, 1942, four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, "Little Jimmy" Doolittle and his raiders bombed five Japanese cities in broad daylight. Damage was minimal, but that wasn't the point. The assault, later immortalized in the film Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, proved the enemy was vulnerable. American morale soared, and Army Lt. Col. Doolittle—at 46, the self-proclaimed "antique" of the mission—became a World War II hero.

He wasn't one to rest on his laurels. The son of an Alameda, Calif., carpenter turned Alaska gold prospector, Doolittle, 5'6" and scrappy, had always valued hard work. After training as an Army pilot he taught flying to cadets during World War I, then performed aerial stunts and set speed records as an Army test pilot—while earning a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering from MIT. Following the Tokyo bombing run, he was instantly promoted to brigadier general, and though he joked about an easier life ("I'd like to run a peanut stand...on a quiet street," he once wrote Josephine, the high school sweetheart he married), he didn't ease up. After leaving the Army, he worked as a Shell Oil executive, helped Josephine raise their two sons and served as president of the Institute of Aeronautical Science, among other honorary positions. He gave up flying by 1961. "My friends who only half quit...didn't stay proficient," he said at the time. "Inevitably they would be tempted to go into bad weather, and they ended up dead."

But the glory never stopped coming. In 1985 President Reagan made Doolittle a four-star general, and in 1989 President Bush, pronouncing Doolittle "the master of the calculated risk," gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Doolittle took the accolades in stride, his son John, also a military pilot, said last week. "His philosophy was...that we were put on this earth for a purpose: to, within our capabilities, make the earth a better place to live."

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