Flying is not all sunshine and roses. There are solemn and poignant moments as well, and they engender a deeper bond among those of us who fly.
I had the opportunity to go to the National Museum of the Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio, for the final public reunion and last toast of the surviving Doolittle Raiders—four of the eighty brave men who carried out the Tokyo Raid that revealed a home front vulnerability to the emboldened Japanese leadership.
In April of 1942, just four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and seventy-nine other pilots, navigators, bombardiers and gunners launched sixteen B-25s from the deck of the USS HORNET to attack major cities in Japan including Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya and Kobe.
The original plan was to strike Japan and recover in China. But the task force was spotted by a Japanese patrol boat 170 miles away from the intended launch point, where the bombers would have been in range and able to recover in China. Instead, they launched immediately knowing that they would not be able to make it to safety in the Chinese-controlled airfields.
After bombing Japan, four planes crash landed, eleven crews bailed out in Japanese controlled areas of China and one crew made it to Russia. Most of the crews managed to evade the Japanese with the assistance of the local Chinese. The Japanese killed all the residents of villages that assisted the Americans. Three Raiders died in the assault, eight were captured by the Japanese.
Of the eight captured, three were executed and one starved to death in prison. The remaining four were repatriated after the war. In all, sixty-two of the eighty Raiders survived the war.
The mission was not terribly successful in terms of actual bomb damage to the Japanese homeland, but it was monumental in embarrassing the Emperor and the Japanese military. It also gave Americans a much needed boost to sagging morale in the early days of World War II. The Raiders were appropriately regarded as heroes.
In 1946 the surviving Raiders held their first reunion and continued to do so every year in a different city around the country. In 1959 the reunion was in Tucson, Arizona, and the city presented the Raiders with a set of 80 silver goblets. Each goblet had the name of one Raider engraved on it twice, once so you could read the name when the goblet was right side up and again so you could read the name when the goblet was upside down. Then Lt. General Doolittle added a bottle of cognac made in 1896, the year of his birth.
The pact with the group was that the last two surviving Raiders would open the bottle and drink a toast to all the Raiders. At each successive reunion, the goblets of those who had died in the previous year were inverted. Today only four of the eighty goblets are right side up.
This past April at the 71st Raider reunion, the four surviving Raiders, now all in their 90s, decided it was time to have their final public reunion, open the bottle of cognac and have their toast as it has become difficult for them to travel. They picked Memorial Day weekend and the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB for the time and location. Only three of them were able to attend.
It was a party I couldn’t miss, and I’m glad I went. The public ceremony was short and sweet, with comments from acting Secretary of the Air Force, the Honorable Eric Fanning, and Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Mark Welsh, III. Never have I heard a political appointee and a four-star general give such brief and relevant speeches. The best comments came from Lt. Colonel Richard (Dick) Cole, USAF (Ret.), Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot in plane number one. He thanked the several hundred attendees and reiterated that the Raiders saw themselves as a group of aviators carrying out an assigned mission, just doing what needed to be done, not really “heroes.” This is the legacy of the so-called Greatest Generation.
I was with a group of aviators from the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots’ Association and appreciated that the crowd was a cross section of all ages—from Boy and Girl Scouts to senior citizens.
The ceremony culminated with a five-ship, missing-man fly-by of B-25s. The toast was a private, invitation-only ceremony, and I wasn’t on the A list.
If you have never seen the movie 30 Seconds over Tokyo, it’s worth watching. The story is accurately told; Hollywood didn’t have to add a lot of superficial dramatization to this amazing saga. Get your kids and grandkids to watch it with you. Let them know there’s a lot more hero lurking inside every one of us than we realize. It just needs to be called upon.