As July bursts like a fire-cracker and the red-white-and-blue bunting begins to go up for this Thursday’s Fourth, my thoughts are directed towards four of our greatest heroes. Ever since late April, I have thought about Mr. Cole, Mr. Hite, Mr. Saylor and Mr. Thatcher because time is drawing nigh. I am told that members of our country’s “Greatest Generation” are now dying at a rate of 1,200 veterans a day.
And today those four are the last survivors of “Doolittle’s (Tokyo) Raiders.” They met for what would be the last time on April 30 at Eglin Air Force Base near Fort Walton, Florida, and there – as the four stood to toast one of the most heroic moments in America’s history – they decided they no longer wished to keep the pact they had vowed at their first yearly reunion in the late 1940s.
The deal was this: The city of Phoenix long ago presented to the Raiders – who bombed Tokyo, incidentally, during World War II – a beautiful chest filled with individual silver goblets, each engraved with the names of those 80 young warriors who volunteered for an "extremely hazardous but unspecified mission.” Note: each goblet is engraved twice – on one side so it can be read upright, on the other so it can be read when the goblet is turned down, never to be filled again. That way each name lives in perpetuity. Today only four goblets remain upright.
Accompanying the goblets all these years has been an unopened bottle of Hennessey cognac, vintage 1896, the year of then-Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle’s birth. The original plan was for the last Raider standing to open the revered bottle, pour a liberal cup, and say the final farewell. But now not one hero still standing wants to be last.
The four who remain are Col. Richard E. Cole (Doolittle’s co-pilot in Plane No. 1), Lt. Col. Robert L. Hite (co-pilot of No. 16 that had “Bat Out Of Hell” written on the nose), Lt. Col. Edward Joseph Saylor (engineer on No. 15 that had “T-N-T” painted on its nose), and SSgt. David L. Thatcher (gunner on No. 7 that had “The Ruptured Duck” painted on its nose).
No, in the near future (or, if they haven’t already done so) the four will meet privately, taste the cognac in a very private and sacred way, and then close the beautiful case for good. But as we sing of being a “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” image the team that Doolittle personally selected to fly – for the first time ever – a specially outfitted B-25 bomber off the deck of an aircraft carrier. Every man volunteered with no idea what the mission might be.
The Raiders, all young and full of fight, were part of the 17th Bomb Group and virtually none had ever been in combat. Further, they had practiced for no more than a month when the code came to Eglin: “Jimmy your horse is ready to ride.” The planes and the five-man crews were loaded onto the aircraft carrier Hornet in California and steamed towards Japan.
In his autobiography, Doolittle explained why the raid was so important. “The Japanese people had been told they were invulnerable ... An attack on the Japanese homeland would cause confusion in the minds of the Japanese people and sow doubt about the reliability of their leaders. There was a second, and equally important, psychological reason for this attack ... Americans badly needed a morale boost.”
At daybreak of April 14, 1942, the Hornet was about 650 miles from Japan when a Japanese picket boat spied the carrier and her escort ship. The startled captain radioed the pending attack before the USS Nashville blew it out of the water and Doolittle realized time was precious. At 8:20 that morning Jimmy Doolittle became the first man to ever fly a B-25 off 467 feet of flight deck and by 9:10 there were miraculously 15 other B-25s in the air with him. (Only after the war was it revealed the picket boat’s radio transmission was garbled and unitelligable.)
Every pilot knew they didn’t have the fuel for the mission and the escape afterward to an airfield in China but they were each successful in finding their targets. Then, as they ditched their planes, every man used his parachute for the very first time. All said, 62 survived of the 80; three men were killed in crashes, three of eight POWS were executed, and one man starved to death. The Japanese massacred an estimated 250,000 Chinese trying to find the Raiders.
Doolittle, who avoided breaking his leg in his jump because he landed in a “soft” pile of manure, thought he would be court-marshaled for losing the planes – instead President Franklin Roosevelt presented him the Medal of Honor and he was immediately made a general. The aircraft carrier Hornet was torpedoed and sunk six months later in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands.
The 80 goblets, for what is hoped to be many years, will be prominently displayed at the National Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and it will be noted that all 80 men were members of the United States Army Air Corps, the predecessor to the Air Force.
Between now and Thursday, try to thank any veteran from any war you can for assuring yet another celebration of our Declaration of Independence this week will carry on as an American tradition and, on Thursday itself, you might just toast the Doolittle Raiders yourself.
After this year the historic Raider’s Toast will never happen again.