On Tuesday, 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 this week will mark 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. But if you find yourself near Fort Walton Beach this week, and if you should encounter any of the Raiders, you might want to offer them a word of thanks. I can tell you from first hand observation that they appreciate hearing that they are remembered.
The men have decided that after this final public reunion they will wait until a later date — some time 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.
And we will have lost some of the last quiet heroes from WWII… I was honored to know LTC Horace E. (Sally) Crouch thorough the Masonic Lodge, and he was truly one who NEVER considered himself a hero. He often said we just did our jobs, nothing more, nothing less.
While these sorts of posts are important, I find the passing time and the passing heroes to be distressing and depressing because we are so in need of leadership and of people with this sort of character to remain among us.
Thanks for posting this, like LL said, it’s tough to realize that those men are leaving us everyday. They gave so much so that the current generation would have so much. And it seems they’re just throwing it away.
To the men of the Doolittle Raid!
Dusty in here
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
Thank you for posting this.
Calling them “the greatest generation” is one of the few things Tom Brokaw ever got right. I used to believe that rank-and-file Americans would always rise to the occasion like that … but given events/gummint depredations since 9/11, I’m not so sure.
A story that needs telling. Thanks for posting it.
from the 90th psalm, paraphrase: “A thousand ages in Thy sight… are like an evening gone, Short as the watch that ends the night… before the rising dawn”.
We will not forget, so long as we too shall live.
To paraphrase Bunyan:
“So they passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for them on the other side.”
Very nice…thank you.
After a mission and a life like theirs saying I am grateful for their service simply seems trite . . . .
“To absent friends . . . . Hear! Hear!”
Ordinary men doing extraordinary things. Peace be with them all.
As said above, we are in dire need of men of this caliber, those who served in WWII and Korea. Duty and honor above all. A thing of the past now days. I would like to see a public showing of some AF pilot turning over the last goblet and the case placed at the Air Force Academy or a museum in their honor.
LL/Old AF- Y’all are both dead on…
Sendarius- Thank you!
Jenn- You’re welcome!
Rev- Concur with all!
WSF/Stephen- You’re welcome.
Ian- Amen to that!
Peter B- And their own table in Valhalla…
Bill- Absent Friends!
CP- Hopefully it will go to a place of honor where it can be viewed by all that go there. Honestly, I’d love to see it at Udvar Hazy in the military section!
There is a dust storm in my living room.
Passed through Wright-Patt a few years back. They were having a Raiders Reunion. There were only three present then. I do not look forward to this conclusion.
Rick- Yeah, same over here.
PA- Neither do I, and Absent Comrades!
When visiting the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson I saw the cased goblets. Watching the visitors was interesting. The younger owns would give a cursory read and look. The older ones … the ones with unit hats … would stop, take their time reading names. You could watch them mouthing the names.
When done they would inveritably nod and quietly walk away a little more firmly and a little straighter than when they arrived.
Dust of the stars was under our feet, glitter of stars above
Wrecks of our wrath dropped reeling down as we fought and we spurned and we strove.
Worlds upon worlds we tossed aside, and scattered them to and fro,
The night that we stormed Valhalla, a million years ago !
Rudyard Kipling, The Sack of the Gods
NFO, thanks for posting this. Just regular men called upon to do the impossible, and doing it.