A final toast for the Doolittle Raiders

By Bob Greene,

Lt. Col. James Doolittle leans over a bomb on the USS Hornet deck just
before his “Raiders” began the bombing raid on Tokyo .
 

* This week, the few remaining Doolittle Raiders will reunite.

* In 1942 the 80 men bombed Tokyo in death-defying mission,
retaliation for Pearl Harbor .

* A case of 80 goblets is brought to their annual reunions. When a
Raider dies a cup is upended.

* This year, there are four left. They’ll toast the Raiders with aged
cognac, and end reunions.

It’s the cup of brandy that no one wants to drink. On Tuesday, in Fort
Walton Beach , Florida , the surviving Doolittle Raiders will gather
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
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 — 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.

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10 Responses to “A final toast for the Doolittle Raiders”

  1. Thrawn says:

    Fascinating read.

  2. andrea says:

    Best thing you have ever posted on this board Buzzy.I had tears in my eyes.

  3. jason says:

    Buzzy I say to hell with anyone that has any issue with a story about our great american heros. Our men and women of our great military are the best of us all. Its where we keep our true heros.
    We all owe them a debt we can never truly repay and should always keep that in mind. They are the greatest of us all. God gaves us our rights but we keep them because of our military.

  4. jason says:

    We can all have something we agree on I hope with this.

  5. ck says:

    “LAND OF THE FREE BECAUSE OF THE BRAVE!” Thanks Buzzy for posting this article about the GREAT AMERICAN HEROES that made this country what it was!!!! WE CERTAINLY OWE THEM AND TAKE A LOT FOR GRANTED…WISH THERE WERE MORE OF THESE TYPES AROUND!!! HOPE GOD BLESSES THE LAST OF THE DOOLITTLE RAIDERS!!!

  6. tisa says:

    Thanks for the post, Buzzy. We do have interests outside of Tebow. What a story!

  7. Bigfan says:

    What those men did is remarkable and exactly what was needed at that moment in time. HERE, HERE, Men!!

    Had the pleasure of knowing the General for many years. Calm, Cool and Collected, Always a gentleman.

    What many don’t know about him is he was the first one to fly “Under the Hood”…take off and land with only reading his instruments. The General was the consummate aviator

    My dad was a Naval Aviator who passed at 94. 117 combat missions

    • ck says:

      Bigfan: What a record and nothing short of amazing!! They are the TRUE HEROES OF THE U.S.!! Thank you for sharing this information and what an honor it must have been to know these individuals.
      (Note: My husband and I have on occasion felt compelled to personally go up to WWII Vets or others wearing either a hat a/o uniform just to shake their hand and let them know how much we appreciate all of their service/sacrifice.)

  8. Thrawn says:

    Is there a place where we can find more stories like this?

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