Ask Rufus: Sergeant, not General, James Doolittle

 

In Stalag Luft IV, writing paper was hard for American prisoners to obtain. My father had his fellow POWs write their names and addresses on the back of cigarette packages from Red Cross parcels. Among the names written on this package that my father saved when he was liberated is James Doolittle, Louisville, Mississippi.

In Stalag Luft IV, writing paper was hard for American prisoners to obtain. My father had his fellow POWs write their names and addresses on the back of cigarette packages from Red Cross parcels. Among the names written on this package that my father saved when he was liberated is James Doolittle, Louisville, Mississippi. Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

Rufus Ward

 

 

Working on the column about my father's World War II experience last week, I came across a newspaper clipping that reminded me of one of the stories he had told me about Stalag Luft IV, the POW camp he was in.  

 

One of his friends in the camp was another American airman, Sgt. James Doolittle of Louisville, Mississippi. His was a story of death, destruction and confusion, but nevertheless a story that always brought a smile to my father's face. 

 

My father said Doolittle was unbelievably lucky to have survived the explosion of the B-24 he was a gunner in when it was hit by German fire. What always made my father smile, though, was telling how when Sgt. Doolittle was captured the Germans thought he was the famous American general and aviator James Doolittle, who had led the first bombing of Tokyo. My father enjoyed telling how Sgt. Doolittle kept telling the Germans he was just a sergeant, but they wouldn't believe him and brought in top Gestapo and Luftwaffe officers to interrogate him. After a couple of weeks, they determined from his serial number that he really was just Sgt. Jimmy Doolittle. That was the story I often heard. 

 

Looking through my father's World War II papers last week, I found a loose newspaper clipping from a December 1948 Memphis newspaper (probably the Commercial Appeal). In it was a story about and an interview with Jimmy Doolittle, then the assistant trainmaster for the GM&O Railroad at Corinth. Under a photo of Doolittle was the caption: "What's in a name?" The story it told was one of horror, luck, mistaken identity and perseverance. 

 

Doolittle was a ball turret gunner on a B-24 Liberator bomber with the U.S. Army Air Force's 15th Air Force. He had begun his tour at Casablanca but had been in Italy flying combat missions for two months when he flew his ninth and final mission. On Feb. 22, 1944, a large force of B-24s, including Doolittle's squadron, were sent to bomb a ME-109 aircraft factory at Regensburg, Germany. They faced heavy attacks from German fighter aircraft and anti-aircraft batteries. Thirteen American bombers were shot down, including Doolittle's plane that was loaded with incendiary bombs and exploded when hit by German fire. 

 

Because of the confined space in the ball turret, Doolittle had not previously been wearing his parachute in the turret. But on Feb. 22 he had decided to do so. That saved his life for when the plane exploded, he was blown out of the turret. The normal crew was 10, but an extra person was on board that day. Everyone on the bomber except Doolittle was killed. 

 

Within five minutes of his landing, Doolittle was captured by the German military. He had tried to hide his dog tags but they were quickly found, and then as he described it: "When they found out I was Jimmy Doolittle they all but blew their tops." He was taken to a farmhouse for his injuries to be treated and was soon being questioned by Gestapo and Luftwaffe officers. They did not believe he was a Sgt. Doolittle. They were sure that he was the famous Gen. Doolittle. 

 

According to Doolittle: "I was quite a hot dog until they had time to trace my serial number. Then I was just another GI with a long time in a prison camp ahead of him." A.G. Weems, the Memphis newspaper correspondent who interviewed Doolittle summed it up: "This Jimmy Doolittle, shot down over Regensburg in 1944, had the Gestapo in a dither for a while ..." My father recalled that even at Stalag Luft IV in the summer of 1944 there were on occasions questions still being asked about Sgt. Doolittle by German guards. It was not until May 18, 1944 the U.S. War Dept. reported James M. Doolittle of Louisville, Mississippi, was a German Prisoner of War. 

 

Doolittle wound up at Stalag Luft IV a German POW camp for airmen who were non-commissioned officers (sergeants) which opened on May 12, 1944. It was there he and my father met. Last week I described the conditions in the camp. Doolittle was also on the 80-day, 500-mile "Black March" of POWs from the camp as Russian troops approached from the east in February of 1945. In my father's copy of A History of Stalag Luft IV by former POW Joseph O'Donnell, he had circled a paragraph in ink. "In Feb. 1945 began evacuation of airmen and pilots from Stalag Luft IV in Podborsko. ... Prisoners marched in very difficult conditions, many died from lack of food, sickness, exhaustion or were killed by escorting soldiers. Those who survived were freed in April, 1945 ..." The conditions in the camp and on the march can be summed up by the fact that 14 German officers and guards at the camp faced charges of war crimes when the war ended.

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]

 

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