The year was 1942 …
Three months earlier, the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. The United States and Japan were now at war.
Throughout Northern California, at airstrips from Alameda to Mather (including what is now Yolo County Airport), there were beehives of activity: B-25 Mitchell bombers were practicing into-the-wind takeoffs on abbreviated runways.
While most didn’t know it then, Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, a Bay Area native, was readying 80 men and 16 planes for his stirring reprisal attack on Tokyo.
While the Doolittle Raiders didn’t cause catastrophic damage, they provided a game-changing emotional lift for the American people.
So daunting to the psyche of the Japanese war effort was Doolittle’s reply to Pearl Harbor that the Japanese felt immediately compelled to knock out U.S. aircraft carriers.
In a hasty decision to engage the Americans at Midway Island, it was the Japanese who lost key carriers — meaning just seven months after that infamous sneak attack on Hawaii, the tide of World War II had already turned.
Courage, patriotism, resolve … words that many think are lost on a modern generation.
To wit, read an excerpt from President Ronald Reagan’s farewell address:
“And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it.
“We’ve got to do a better job on getting across that America is freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile. It needs (protection).
“So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion, but what’s important — why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant.”
‘A center for patriotism’
To that end, plans are moving forward with a new Jimmy Doolittle Center in Vacaville.
The project is targeted for property next to the Nut Tree Airport near the intersection of Interstates 505 and 80.
If all goes according to plan, the 21-acre site will be turned into an air museum, air park, restoration and education center, and multi-use facility. Also in the works would be a hotel and restaurant.
“It’s not just an air and space museum, but a center for patriotism,” Brian McInerney, chief executive officer of the Jimmy Doolittle Center, told The Enterprise. “All branches of the services (will be represented), but even outside the military: What does it mean to be an American?
“How is it we go here and enjoy the freedoms we enjoy today? At what cost?”
McInerney, a former Merchant Marine captain who studied political science at San Francisco State, says the project has a deep history that started more than 30 years ago at Travis Air Force Base.
Once part of an old Travis AFB commissary, the museum vision has been kept alive through the years, until in 2000 a 16-acre site near the base hospital was identified.
The Travis Air Museum was renamed in honor of Doolittle and the founding fathers had received support from the Air Force.
But disaster struck: 9/11 terrorist attacks limited the public’s access to military bases.
“Then they wanted to build a new home outside the wire at Travis,” McInerney explains.
What was next called the Jimmy Doolittle Center Education Foundation “was working on it for a number of years. They designed a new facility, vision, budgets and what costs might be. They had a (land lease) agreement with the Air Force outside the gates.”
It was agreed that the foundation would raise money and the Air Force would build the facility.
“That was progressing, the master plan was set, the organization raised the first $1.2 million,” McInerney says.
But the situation again changed three years ago. The Air Force was no longer in a position “to continue working in parallel … because so much has changed in the mission and funding of the military.”
‘A perfect fit’
Once McInerney jumped on board in 2013, the project board identified 11 acres of privately owned land just northeast of the Nut Tree commercial development. Adjacent to the Nut Tree Airport, the site was connected to another parcel of land formerly designated for city of Vacaville redevelopment.
That redevelopment tag was designed to lure a conference center with a hotel and further retail or restaurant.
McInerney says the Doolittle project is perfectly suited for the area and coincides with Vacaville’s original vision for the property.
“We saw we could develop not just an air and space museum, but a larger complex, more broad-based … that the region could support over a long period of time.”
The foundation acted quickly and secured the option to buy the 11 acres.
A first phase, says McInerney, in partnership with Solano Community College’s aeronautics program (already housed at the Nut Tree Airport) is a “perfect fit.”
Just last month, SCC President Jowel Laguerre was joined by McInerney and foundation board member Herm Rowland (Jelly Belly’s chairman of the board) in a meeting of the college district’s trustees.
“The museum has a lot of avenues for our students,” Laguerre told trustees, adding that some of a recent $348 million bond measure could be used to help secure space in the Doolittle Center.
“We have so many Air Force retirees with knowledge in those areas (who can help) with the college’s programs,” McInerney continues. “And the planes are already here. If we build next to each other, the restoration/education hangar can be one.
“The whole thing is very synergistic.”
The first phase with the SCC education wing, a couple of hangars for display and other minor elements could cost as much as $12 million to $15 million.
Currently, the foundation has one of only 17 existing B-25s, a Pacific Theater veteran named Tondaleyo.
Expected to be a centerpiece in a Doolittle Museum that will be chockablock with ghosts of history, Tondaleyo flew 14 missions under Capt. Dick Alice. Despite sustaining much damage from enemy fire, Tondaleyo survived — shooting down 14 Japanese aircraft and sinking an enemy ship.
Completely restored, the B-25 now hosts fundraising flights from Vacaville, over the Golden Gate Bridge, down the San Francisco Bay Peninsula and back home.
While the flights raise pocket change for the project, McInerney says he hopes big money comes in as the scope of the Doolittle Museum becomes more publicized.
The built-out project — with 100,000 square feet of hangar space, 50,000 square feet for artifacts and a theater and a 10,000-square-foot lobby — will tack on another $50 million, McInerney estimates.
Within the next 45 days, the foundation will have all the figures nailed down, he adds.
The group will appear next month before the Vacaville City Council to discuss a lease option on the city’s old redevelopment property with the hope that the foundation can draw a hotel to town, perhaps even work a profit-sharing agreement.
Meanwhile, McInerney agrees with Reagan …
The history of how Americans got here “doesn’t seem to be interwoven into today’s society much at all.”
“I know in my 10-year-old son’s (Marin County) schools — which are very good — everything is stem-related technology. Less than 10 percent history or social studies is taught anymore.”
‘Doing the right thing for the right reason’
After leaving the Merchant Marine, McInerney helped former San Francisco Police Chief Frank Jordan get elected as that city’s mayor. Next, he entered the private sector to match deserving nonprofits with contributors and other organizations that could move them forward.
When approached about taking over this museum project, “I saw the opportunity. I thought, ‘Wow.’ It made sense to me. If we could pull this whole thing off and create a center like this, we could actually connect an affiliation (for) a new type of education — or source of education.
“We can come up with educational programs for teachers, or put it online where they can easily integrate it into their classrooms.”
McInerney goes on …
“Basically it’s ‘What is what used to be known as the character of an American. Why is it that we would go halfway around the globe and die for somebody that we never met before or don’t even understand?’ … It’s because we hold certain principles dear and we think certain things are just right.
“Doing the right thing for the right reason at the right time — period.”
McInerney believes “who we are is getting lost.”
“Running around waving the flag is all fine and dandy, but it doesn’t really impart who we are or embed in it what we do.”
Notes: Actor and Sacramento native Tom Hanks has put his stamp of approval on the project, contributing a YouTube promotional piece … At the foundation’s Nut Tree Airport hangar is a small sampling of what museumgoers can expect if the Doolittle project plays out. A pre-World War I bi-plane, built by 15-year-old twins Willy and Arthur Gonzalez in San Francisco’s Richmond District, is a veteran of Yolo County flights in 1915. A Navy Wildcat sits proudly in the northwest corner, a wing folded as if lounging, proudly reflecting on its many missions accomplished. McInerney says there are many other artifacts and vintage planes sitting at Travis, waiting to be rediscovered by the masses. The project CEO says he has commitments from private owners who will donate or lend their old aircraft to the museum when it opens. … A terrific family destination, the museum would host school field trips, and supply teachers with courses of study (in person and online) — while providing “programs for younger kids. Whether we start them on paper airplanes, or riveting, or propeller design… They can come down and fly a model airplane. There will be a park out there,” McInerney promises. “We’re going to preserve and honor history.” …Visit www.doolittlecenter.org or call 707-317-1138 to get involved.
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at [email protected] or 530-320-4456.