REMEMBERING THE DOOLITTLE RAIDERS
On Tuesday (April of 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
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
emblemizes the depth of his sense of duty and devotion:
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 firsthand 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."