ALAMEDA – Sean Doolittle tugs gently on his bushy red beard and soaks in a history lesson as he strolls in silence along the 872-foot wooden flight deck of the USS Hornet. He checks out old war planes while gazing at spectacular views of San Francisco and the bay, then climbs dozens of stairs to take a turn in the ship's "air boss" seat.
At the USS Hornet Museum, the A's reliever hears all about then-Lt. Col. James "Jimmy" Doolittle and his lead role in the first attack against the Japanese home islands after Pearl Harbor, a daylight barrage on April 18, 1942.
The Doolittle Raid.
Doolittle the pitcher recently determined that the late Gen. Doolittle is a seventh cousin – and not an uncle far removed as he had long thought.
They never met. Jimmy Doolittle – an aviation pioneer, courageous combat man and one of the most-noted pilots of his time – died Sept. 27, 1993, at age 96, one day after Sean's seventh birthday.
"I'm still learning about him," said Sean Doolittle, a history buff. "Every new thing you learn about him, you're like, 'Whoa.' "
Jimmy Doolittle calculated that the 16 B-25 Army Air Force Mitchell bombers could be launched using "short-field takeoffs" – less than 500 feet of runway on the aircraft carrier – from the USS Hornet fully loaded with bombs, drop them on Japan and have enough fuel to fly on to China in daring one-way missions.
During his visit Monday afternoon to the USS Hornet Museum at Naval Air Station Alameda, Sean Doolittle viewed a map of the attack sites and photos from that history-making day guided by Jimmy Doolittle.
"Even though it happened a long time ago, to be standing where it happened is a little surreal," Sean Doolittle said. "I come from a military family, and I do a lot of stuff with the military now. I'm going to go to Walter Reed (National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.) when we go to Baltimore.
"That's one of the main things that I get out of it, the perspective that it gives you on how fortunate I am to be able to do what I do when there's teenagers leaving the country with M-16s and they're going to the Middle East. And I get to play baseball every day. You start to look at things a little bit differently, and you really appreciate the opportunities you have and some of these things other people do for you (and) getting little or no recognition for it."
The military life indeed hits close to home for the pitcher, a first-round draft pick by the A's in 2007 who rapidly rose through the organization after transforming himself from injury-prone first baseman to reliable reliever in less than a year. He is 4-5 with a 3.67 ERA this season.
Doolittle's father, Rory, is retired from the Air Force and teaches high school ROTC in New Jersey. He was deployed to the Middle East shortly after Sept. 11. His stepmother, April, is on active duty for the Air National Guard and stationed at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.
While the Hornet CV-8 was sunk at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands only six months after the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, Sean Doolittle still got an idea of how things went on the first ship during his visit to USS Hornet CV-12 on historic Alameda Point along San Francisco Bay.
"It all happened right here," Bob Fish, on the museum's board of trustees, explained to the pitcher. "Doolittle was possibly the best pilot of his day. He changed the whole industry."
"That's crazy," Sean Doolittle said. "This is amazing."
The original Hornet departed for its long journey through the Pacific from Naval Air Station Alameda, where a tribute to Doolittle was held last year to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the daring Doolittle Raid. On Monday, Sean Doolittle was presented with a laminated poster from the event.