Today, there are only four survivors. They will have a final reunion next week at the National Air Force Museum in Ohio. All of the four are now in their nineties. The oldest is 98 years old.
After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, our country was in shock. Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle and 80 men under his command were chosen and trained for retaliating by bombing Tokyo. All were volunteers.
A plan had been conceived for American planes to make our first attack on Japanese soil. Since there was not a friendly air base near enough Japan for US planes to depart, 16 B-25s were modified so they could take off from the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Five men were onboard each plane with Doolittle flying the lead plane when they flew off the deck of the USS Hornet.
Because it was believed the Japanese had learned about the plans for the raid, the decision was make that the planes would leave the ship from farther out in the ocean than planned. That meant the planes would not have enough fuel to return to the ship. Yet, the mission was not aborted.
In an interview many years after the April 1942 raid on Tokyo, then Gen. Doolittle summarized the mission. “Get the job done and get the heck out of there.”
After bombing Tokyo, knowing they were running out of fuel, the planes flew toward China. Some crash landed there seeking safe haven. One made it to Russia. Some crews bailed out of their planes prior to their crashing. Three of the raiders were killed, eight were captured, three were executed and one died in a Japanese prison.
Over 60 of Doolittle’s Raiders survived the war. They were national heroes and were highly decorated for their bravery. Jimmy Doolittle skipped two ranks to become a general.
A movie, “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” was made telling their story. It starred Spencer Tracy as James Doolittle and Van Johnson as one of the other pilots. As the raid had been, the movie was tremendously successful.
Retired Lt. Gen. Jackson Hudson, now the director of the Air Force Museum, described the success of the mission. “While the attack itself caused little actual damage to the Japanese war industry, the psychological impact on the Japanese military and the American public proved to be immense.”
As someone wrote, “The Doolittle Raid sent a message from the United States to its enemies, and to the rest of the world: We will fight. And, no matter what it takes, we will win.”
In 1946, the survivors began holding a reunion. Each year it has been held in a different city. A toast, originally led by Doolittle, was made for their fallen soldiers.
When the reunion was held in Tucson, Ariz., the city presented them with a set of 80 silver goblets. Each goblet was engraved twice with the name of one of the raiders. The names can be read right-side-up for the living or upside-down for the deceased.
The goblets are housed in a display case that is carried to the city where the reunion is held. The goblets for those who have died during the year are turned upside down. Now, with only four living survivors, only four of the goblets are right side up.
Also in the case is a bottle of 1896 cognac. That is the year of the birth of Jimmy Doolittle.
The plan was that when there were only two of Doolittle’s Raiders living, they would open the cognac and make the last toast in remembrance of their 78 deceased comrades.
But now the plan has been changed. At their reunion earlier this year, because of their ages and declining health, they decided to have their final reunion this month.
In the past, others have been invited to the reunion. They included survivors of the USS Hornet and surviving Chinese villagers who helped the Raiders avoid being captured by the Japanese.
At this reunion, in private, Lt. Col. Richard Cole, Lt. Col. Edward Saylor, Master Sgt. David Thatcher and Lt. Col. Robert Hite — hopefully all will be well enough to attend — will open the cognac. They will fill their silver goblets and give their final toast to their fellow heroes who have preceded them in death.
Both Veterans Day and Thanksgiving are approaching. Let us pause to be thankful for the courage of Doolittle’s Raiders and many others who fought or are now fighting for our freedom insuring that the United States of America remains the greatest country in the history of the world.
Marguerite Cline is the former mayor of Waleska.