The Story Behind the Piece: TOM LEA AND JIMMY DOOLITTLE, by Adair Margo

The Story Behind the Piece: TOM LEA AND JIMMY DOOLITTLE, by Adair Margo

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


Tom Lea
Jimmy Doolittle, 1943
LIFE Collection, WWII, Army Art Collection, Fort Belvoir, VA

On April 18, 1942, Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle led the famous “Tokyo Raid” off the aircraft carrier USS Hornet in the Coral Sea.  Sixteen B-25s - loaded with four bombs and five crew members each - revved up, running down 450 feet of clear deck before lifting off into the sky.  The raiders took off early, hundreds of miles further from Japan than originally planned after having been spotted by an enemy boat. They secretly practiced forcing their planes into flight, as their carrier runway was a third of the length normally needed for takeoff.  After some near-stall climbs, the planes steadied low into single file above the lapping waves, with Japanese medals tied to one of the 500 pound bombs, marked for “special delivery.” 


Four months had passed since Pearl Harbor and the Japanese were feeling invincible.  They felt assured their island homeland was safe, and a feeling of victory swept the land.  Yet at 12 noon, 13 dark-green planes with white stars appeared over Tokyo, striking military and industrial sites, with 3 planes hitting Yokohama, Kobe, Osaka and Nagoya.  The Americans!


After dropping their loads on the assigned targets, the raiders flew on until they ran out of fuel. 15 of the crews landed in China and one in the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, one died bailing from his plane and two drowned. Eight airmen were captured by the Japanese, three of which were executed.


While the “Doolittle Raid” inflicted little material damage, it went a long way in boosting American morale, demonstrating the vulnerability of the Japanese home islands. The attack forced the recall of Japanese for home defense, and set in motion a chain of events that led to Japan’s ultimate defeat. This consequential raid has even been portrayed in movies including the 1944 Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo in which Spencer Tracy plays the hero Jimmy Doolittle.


The photo of Doolittle above was created by an artist correspondent for LIFE magazine, Tom Lea. He stayed aboard the USS Hornet after the Doolittle Raid for over two months during the desperate Guadalcanal air and sea battles. The area of the Coral Sea they were patrolling was dubbed “Torpedo Junction” by one of the officer’s onboard, as they sensed the Japanese would soon come after Doolittle’s ship.  On September 16, 1942 the Japanese sunk USS Wasp, which Lea witnessed from his station on the signal bridge. Then, on October 21, 1942, the Hornet was hit, five days after Lea was lifted off.  Admiral Chester Nimitz broke the news to him at Pearl Harbor as Tom Lea briefed him on the drawings he had done onboard.


Brig. Gen. C.R. Smith commanded the Air Transport Command during World War II and wanted a painted record of their efforts in different parts of the world. Because Smith was a friend of Tom Lea’s he wrote Lea’s orders on August 11, 1943, allowing him transportation anywhere the ATC flew.  One of these locations was Tunis. Jimmy Doolittle had a villa in an Arab village, named La Marsa, just north of Tunis.  Also a friend of C.R. Smith’s, Doolittle gladly welcomed Lea into his home, agreeing to pose for a portrait. Though whiskey was hard to get overseas, the two men drank a fifth of scotch while staying up until three o’clock in the morning reminiscing about the Hornet.  Many years later, Tom Lea remembered Jimmy Doolittle as one of the most interesting and genial men he met during the war. 


The National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas will display Doolittle’s portrait and 23 other Lea works on loan from the LIFE Collection, WWII, US Army Center of Military History, Fort Belvoir, VA in October as part of Tom Lea Month.  The exhibit, TOM LEA, LIFE AND WORLD WAR II will open on October 16, 2015.  For more information call the Tom Lea Institute at 915-533-0048 or e-mail

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