Three of the four surviving Doolittle Raiders performed the final toasting ceremony for their fallen comrades Nov. 9 at the United States Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.
After a roll call of the 80 Raiders’ names – interrupted only three times with calls of “Here” – Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” Cole broke the seal of an 1896 bottle of Hennessey cognac, per the wishes of Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, the group’s commanding officer. On the morning of the April 1942 raid, Doolittle promised his men he would throw the biggest party they ever saw if the raid was successful. After the war, the Raiders reunited to celebrate Doolittle’s birthday in December 1946, and that get-together turned into an annual ritual that concluded this year.
“Gentlemen, may I propose a toast to those we lost in the mission and to those who passed away since. … May they rest in peace,” Cole, 98, said before he joined Lt. Col. Edward Saylor, 93, and Staff Sgt. David Thatcher, 92, in a sip of cognac.
The fourth surviving Raider, Lt. Col. Robert Hite, 93, was unable to travel to Ohio because of health problems. However, Hite joined others in viewing the ceremony via a live broadcast on the Internet – the first time the Raiders have performed their ceremony for the public.
The toast concluded a day of commemoration and public fanfare as thousands of veterans, active-duty personnel, military historians and members of the general public showed their appreciation to the Doolittle Raiders.
At a memorial service outside the museum, acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning praised the efforts of the Raiders.
“In the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a few men were asked to stand in for a nation and strike a retaliatory blow against the Japanese empire,” Fanning said. “It was a low time for Americans. We had been attacked at home, and Americans had seen the totalitarian regimes in Germany and Japan that seemed unstoppable. In that frame of mind, it is what I admire in the Doolittle Raiders. These 80 men showed the nation that we would fight, struggle and ultimately prevail.”
Fanning ticked off the task the Raiders faced: Take a bomber that had never seen combat, launch it off a U.S. Navy carrier deck (USS Hornet) that was a third as long as their minimum takeoff distance, attack a heavily defended Japan on a one-way trip and land on a runway they had never seen in a nation occupied by Japanese troops.
“The Doolittle Raiders are examples to all Americans and all airmen that even in our darkest days there are some among us who have the courage to step forward and say, ‘Send me,’” Fanning said. “We owe them our eternal respect and gratitude.”
The Raiders successfully bombed five Japanese cities. During the raid, three men died and eight were captured. Fifteen of the 16 planes crashed, with one landing safely in Russia; the crew was held captive for more than a year.
Thatcher, engineer-gunner of Aircraft No. 7, says they volunteered for the mission as a sense of duty. “The most memorable moment of the mission wasn’t the training, long over-water flight or the dropping of the bombs in Tokyo,” he said. “It was the crash landing. You just can’t forget something like that.”
To Cole, co-pilot of Aircraft No. 1, their mission was something that had to be done. “We all shared the same risks and had no realization of the positive affect our efforts had on the morale of America at the time,” he said at the public memorial. “We are grateful we had the opportunity to serve and are mindful that our nation benefitted from our service.”
Saylor, a member of American Legion Post 110 in Washington and engineer/gunner of Aircraft No. 15, agreed. “I can thank the country because they appreciated what we did,” he said. “It even took us awhile to realize what we did at the time. The war was on, so our job was to drop some bombs. … So we did what we had to do.”
Among the thousands of guests and others who expressed their gratitude to the Doolittle Raiders this weekend was Frank Ruby, a 96-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor. Ruby, a 10-year Navy veteran who was not injured in the attack on Dec. 7, 1941, said he was an honorary guest at a private dinner with the Raiders.
“I felt very honored to have been invited. I am very happy to be an American,” he said adding that he met with the survivors, including Cole. “I gave him a hug and a handshake and thanked him several times because he sure made a difference in our way of life out there in Honolulu.”
Mike Theirgartner, a military history buff from Marysville, Ohio, attended the public events to show his support for the Raiders. He held up a 48-star American flag – which was the nation’s flag during World War II – as the Raiders and their motorcade arrived earlier in the day.
“I love the aviation part of World War II and have become especially fond of the Doolittle Raiders,” he said. “I’ve come here the last couple of times that the survivors were here to honor them and get their autographs. I’m thrilled to be a part of the history today. And what these men did for our country in a very difficult time.”
While this weekend’s events are the final time the public will be able to personally thank the Raiders, their legacy will live on in several ways.
John “Jack” Hudson, the museum’s director, said the institution will honor the Raiders by displaying their 80 goblets and carrying case in perpetuity. The goblets are engraved twice with each Raiders’ name at the top and bottom. When a Raider dies, his goblet is turned upside down.
The goblets and case will join a B-25 and the USS Hornet carrier deck, already on display at the museum. Those items will continue to “tell the story to future generations, to let the American public learn and know their story, and to inspire today’s youth as well as those of future generations,” Hudson said.
Gen. Mark Welsh, chief of staff for the Air Force, said current airmen also will keep the Raiders legacy alive. He said during the first night of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the first bombs dropped over Baghdad were emblazoned with the words “Make the Doolittle Raiders proud.”
Welsh said that “after 9/11, when the U.S. began combat operations in Afghanistan, the first bombs used against the Taliban were by the 34th Bomb Squad” – one of the squadrons from which the Raiders drew their squad from in 1942. “That squad flew four American flags over Afghanistan and then presented the flags to the Raiders,” he said.
In closing, Welsh recounted what Cole had said earlier at the memorial service. Cole had said he noticed a message on the company bulletin board that said they needed volunteers for a dangerous mission. “So, I signed my name.”
“Yes, sir, you did,” Welsh said. “And you and Col. Doolittle and your brothers inspired a nation and you turned the tide of a war. And we are forever grateful.”