On
April 17-20, 2013, in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, the surviving Doolittle
Raiders gathered publicly for the last time.

 

They
once were among the most universally admired and revered men in the United
States. There were 80 of the Raiders in April 1942, when they carried out one of
the most courageous and heart-stirring military operations in this nation's
history. The mere mention of their unit's name, in those years, would bring
tears to the eyes of grateful Americans.

 

Now
only four survive.

 

 

After
Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, with the United States reeling and
wounded, something dramatic was needed to turn the war effort
around.

 

Even
though there were no friendly airfields close enough to Japan for the United
States to launch a retaliation, a daring plan was devised. Sixteen B-25s were
modified so that they could take off from the deck of an aircraft carrier. This
had never before been tried — sending such big, heavy bombers from a
carrier

 

The
16 five-man crews, under the command of Lt. Col. James Doolittle, who himself
flew the lead plane off the USS Hornet, knew that they would not be able to
return to the carrier. They would have to hit Japan and then hope to make it to
China for a safe landing.

 

But
on the day of the raid, the Japanese military caught wind of the plan. The
Raiders were told that they would have to take off from much farther out in the
Pacific Ocean than they had counted on. They were told that because of this they
would not have enough fuel to make it to safety.

 

And
those men went anyway.

 

They
bombed Tokyo, and then flew as far as they could. Four planes crash-landed; 11
more crews bailed out, and three of the Raiders died. Eight more were captured;
three were executed.  Another died of starvation in a Japanese prison camp.
One crew made it to Russia.

 

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.

 

Of
the 80 Raiders, 62 survived the war. They were celebrated as national heroes,
models of bravery. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced a motion picture based on the
raid; "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," starring Spencer Tracy and Van Johnson, was a
patriotic and emotional box-office hit, and the phrase became part of the
national lexicon. In the movie-theater previews for the film, MGM proclaimed
that it was presenting the story "with supreme pride."

 

Beginning
in 1946, the surviving Raiders have held a reunion each April, to commemorate
the mission. The reunion is in a different city each year. In 1959, the city of
Tucson, Arizona, as a gesture of respect and gratitude, presented the Doolittle
Raiders with a set of 80 silver goblets. Each goblet was engraved with the name
of a Raider.

 

Every
year, a wooden display case bearing all 80 goblets is transported to the reunion
city. Each time a Raider passes away, his goblet is turned upside down in the
case at the next reunion, as his old friends bear solemn witness.

 

Also
in the wooden case is a bottle of 1896 Hennessy Very Special cognac. The year is
not happenstance: 1896 was when Jimmy Doolittle was born.

 

 

 

There
has always been a plan: When there are only two surviving Raiders, they would
open the bottle, at last drink from it, and toast their comrades who preceded
them in death.

 

As
2013 began, there were five living Raiders; then, in February, Tom Griffin
passed away at age 96. What a man he was. After bailing out of his plane over a
mountainous Chinese forest after the Tokyo raid, he became ill with malaria, and
almost died. When he recovered, he was sent to Europe to fly more combat
missions. He was shot down, captured, and spent 22 months in a German prisoner
of war camp. 

 

The
selflessness of these men, the sheer guts … there was a passage in the
Cincinnati Enquirer obituary for Mr. Griffin that, on the surface, had nothing
to do with the war, but that emblematizes the depth of his sense of duty and
devotion"   When his wife became ill and needed to go
into a nursing home, he visited her every day. He walked from his house to the
nursing home, fed his wife and at the end of the day brought home her clothes.
At night, he washed and ironed her clothes. Then he walked them up to her room
the next morning. He did that for three years until her death in
2005."

 

So
now, out of the original 80, only
four
Raiders remain:

Dick Cole (Doolittle's co-pilot on the Tokyo raid), Robert Hite, Edward Saylor
and David Thatcher. All are in their 90s.
They
have decided that there are too few of them for the public reunions to
continue.

 

The
events in Fort Walton Beach  marked the end.  It has come full circle;
Florida's nearby Eglin Field was where the Raiders trained in secrecy for the
Tokyo mission. The town is planning to do all it can to honor the men: a six-day
celebration of their valor, including luncheons, a dinner and a
parade.

 

Do
the men ever wonder if those of us for whom they helped save the country have
tended to it in a way that is worthy of their sacrifice? They don't talk about
that, at least not around other people.

 

The
men have decided that after this final public reunion they will wait until a
later date — sometime this year — to get together once more, informally and in
absolute privacy. That is when they will open the bottle of brandy. The years
are flowing by too swiftly now; they are not going to wait until there are only
two of them. They will fill the four remaining upturned goblets. And raise them
in a toast to those who are gone.

 

Comments

  1. I’m thankful to be one of those Americans that knows the story and does care. Truly it is difficult for me to find the words to describe the admiration and respect I hold in my heart for them. Thank you, Major, for posting even you did put a tear in my eye.

  2. It is truly unfortunate that these courageous Marines are fading into history without any recognition from the American leadership! Why hasn’t the White House and obama at least issued a statement acknowledging these men and their sacrifice? We Americans are too busy texting, twittering, or updating our importance on facebook to take the time to acknowledge the sacrifice of these men. The news recently reported that very few people could recite the Pledge of Allegiance and our schools no longer recite the pledge to start the school day. I often think that we do not deserve the freedom we enjoy because we fail to acknowledge the sacrifices of those that fought for our freedom. I do worry about our young generations and their indifference to the treasures they enjoy every day.

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