The last reunion of the Doolittle Raiders

Painting_on_the_HornetBefore the war, Jimmy Doolittle was probably the most famous pilot in the Air Corps, except maybe for Lindbergh (who was the one reserve officer never activated in the war, by the personal order of the president; so he was unable, unlike Doolittle, to add to his legend). But while the Lone Eagle conquered the Atlantic and pioneered air routes to and in the Americas, Doolittle won races, set records, and perhaps most importantly, proved the feasibility of flying by reference to instruments. Doolittle could fly anything, and wring the maximum performance out of it. So when the Air Corps wanted to surprise Japan with a beyond-sane-range bombing raid soon after Pearl Harbor, they gave the mission to him.

At the end of the mission, the aircraft were all lost. Some crews were interned by the unfriendly Russians; some were captured by the Japanese — and murdered. Some were killed, many injured, and the survivors not in captivity were struggling through a Nationalist Chinese E&E net.

Looking at his bleak future, then-Colonel Doolittle told the men of his crew, “They’re probably going to court-martial me,” for the failure of the mission. One of his loyal gunners contradicted him instantly: “No sir. They’re going to give you the Medal of Honor. And make you a general.”

And that’s exactly what they did. The attack might have been a futile pinprick, but it was bold and daring and caught the admiration of the public.

After the war, Doolittle went to work for Shell Oil, flying around the world with his sidekick (the equally celebrated, equally deserving Englishman, Douglas Bader), and his men met for reunions that got smaller and smaller over the decades. Now, the last nonagenarian Raiders are holding their last public reunion. Stars and Stripes:

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – At 97, retired Lt. Col. Richard Cole can still fly and land a vintage B-25 with a wide grin and a wave out the cockpit window to amazed onlookers.

David Thatcher, 91, charms admiring World War II history buffs with detailed accounts of his part in the 1942 Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, in which he earned a Silver Star.

Retired Lt. Col. Edward Saylor, 93, still gets loud laughs from crowds for his one liners about the historic bombing raid 71 years ago Thursday that helped to boost a wounded nation’s morale in the aftermath of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

Cole, Thatcher and Saylor – three of the four surviving crew members from the history-making bombing run – are at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle for a final public reunion of the Doolittle Raiders. They decided to meet at Eglin because it is where they trained for their top-secret mission in the winter of 1942, just weeks after the Japanese devastated the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.

The fourth surviving raider, 93-year-old Robert Hite, could not make the event.

via Famed World War II aviators hold final reunion – U.S. – Stripes.

The Raiders gave up their regular reunions after the 60th Anniversary of the raid in 2002, but the last survivors gathered one last time at Eglin this year. One tradition the Raiders have maintained is the set of goblets and an associated death tontine. The raiders’ website explains:

Doolittle GobletsIn honor of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, the citizens of Tucson, Arizona presented a set of 80 sterling goblets to the Raiders following WW II. In turn, they were presented to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs by General Doolittle on behalf of the surviving members of the Raiders for safekeeping and display between reunions.

The silver goblets are housed in a special glass-enclosed trophy case which is guarded by two Airmen. In addition to the goblets, the case contains a bottle of brandy to be used by the last two remaining Raiders at the last reunion to toast their departed comrades. Many of the goblets are already turned upside down for the men who were killed in the raid or who have since died.

At each reunion, the Raiders hold a brief ceremony to honor those who have passed away. This emotional remembrance often marks the passing of additional Raiders during the year since the last reunion.

Each goblet is inscribed twice with a Raider name – both right-side up & upside-down – so that the names are always readable.

The brandy was bottled in 1896 — the year of James H Doolittle’s birth. And the four survivors plan to meet privately to open it this year, rather than wait until two of them are gone, and maybe the last two can’t drink. They will drink a toast to the 76 raiders who have preceded them into history.

Bomb_SightThe raid required some unusually flexible adaptations of weapons technology. To get the maximum range out of bomber aircraft, and to enable them to fly from aircraft carriers, which only launched and recovered smaller, single-engine planes at the time, the planes had to be lightened — so they discarded most of the B-25’s defensive armament, and the gunner that operated it. They even reduced the offensive armament, fitting an extra fuel tank in the bomb bay in place of bombs. And finally, they planned to attack at low level. Given that, the classified Norden computing bombsight, the pride of the Air Corps, wouldn’t be effective (it had a hard-deck limit of 4,000 feet MSL coded into it); and adding in the high risk of capture, there was no percentage in bringing it. Instead, the crews themselves developed what was called the Mark Twain bombsight or the twenty-cent bombsight; a Captain Greening was responsible for the math and the design, and the airframe sheet metal techs fabricated the sights with hand tools.

Right after the attack, the story of the raid was told in Lt. Ted McClure’s book, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. Still a good read today, and it was made into an excellent movie. Since then the story has been told many times, and while some of these tales may be more accurate, it’s hard to beat the immediacy of the story of Ted, his crew, and his plane, The Ruptured Duck. 

It will be a sad day when the last of these men are no longer with us. Time never relents. But for today, take a breath of fresh air and rejoice that you are sharing that with four surviving Doolittle Raiders. Theirs was an important role in ensuring that the liberties of their fathers were passed on to us, their sons and grandsons.

4 thoughts on “The last reunion of the Doolittle Raiders

  1. GBS

    To my knowledge, B-25s were launched from the decks of aircraft carriers a total of three times. The first was off USS HORNET in April 1942. The next time was off USS RANGER in April 1992. The third and final time was off USS CARL VINSON in August of 1995. Along with (I believe three) B-25s, an array of WWII-era aircraft were launched off Diamond Head, Hawaii to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII. Being a (still) young Flag staff officer, I had the opportunity to closely inspect all of those aircraft during the transit. I was even offered a spot in a B-25 for the flight off the carrier deck. Unfortunately, my 300+ (at that time) catapult launches somehow failed to qualify me to ride as a passenger during a deck run, and the bosses wouldn’t allow it.

    1. Hognose Post author

      What a great story.

      Some odd craft have flown off carriers over the years, including U-2s, before that system had refueling capability.

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