A final toast for the last surviving Doolittle Raiders
They're in their 90's now - frail, but clear eyed and alert. In Dayton, Ohio last night, 3 of the last 4 surviving members of the 80 airmen and pilots who took off from the deck of the USS Hornet to attack Tokyo on April 18, 1942 gathered at the National Air Force Museum and raised a goblet to fallen comrades one last time.
Three of the four surviving Raiders attended the toast Saturday at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. Their late commander, Lt. Gen. James "Jimmy" Doolittle, started the tradition but they decided this autumn's ceremony would be their last.
"May they rest in peace," Lt. Col. Richard Cole, 98, said before he and fellow Raiders - Lt. Col. Edward Saylor, 93, and Staff Sgt. David Thatcher, 92 - sipped cognac from specially engraved silver goblets. The 1896 cognac was saved for the occasion after being passed down from Doolittle.
Hundreds invited to the ceremony, including family members of deceased Raiders, watched as the three each called out "here" as a historian read the names of all 80 of the original airmen.
The fourth surviving Raider, Lt. Col. Robert Hite, 93, couldn't travel to Ohio because of health problems.
But son Wallace Hite said his father, wearing a Raiders blazer and other traditional garb for their reunions, made his own salute to the fallen with a silver goblet of wine at home in Nashville, Tenn., earlier in the week.
Hite is the last survivor of eight Raiders who were captured by Japanese soldiers. Three were executed; another died in captivity.
A B-25 bomber flyover helped cap an afternoon memorial tribute in which a wreath was placed at the Doolittle Raider monument outside the museum. Museum officials estimated some 10,000 people turned out for Veterans Day weekend events honoring the 1942 mission credited with rallying American morale and throwing the Japanese off balance.
Acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning said America was at a low point, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and other Axis successes, before "these 80 men who showed the nation that we were nowhere near defeat." He noted that all volunteered for a mission with high risks throughout, from the launch of B-25 bombers from a carrier at sea, the attack on Tokyo, and lack of fuel to reach safe bases.
The Raiders have said they didn't realize at the time that their mission would be considered an important event in turning the war's tide. It inflicted little major damage physically, but changed Japanese strategy while firing up Americans.
Indeed, the boost in morale that the raid gave America proved to be only one benefit from the action. The Japanese were shocked that their "impregnable" island defenses could have been breached so easily. Once they figured out that the planes were launched from carriers, they resolved to take the American flat tops out.
One result of the raid was that they moved up their timetable to attack New Guinea. As their mighty fleet steamed into the Coral Sea, 3 American carriers were waiting for them - alerted by our signals intelligence who had broken the main Japanese naval code. While the Battle of Coral Sea was a bloody draw, a few weeks later, Admiral Yamamoto decided to set a trap for the American carriers by drawing them into battle by attacking Midway, a vital mid-Pacific base for the US.
Once again, the codebreakers did their job and Admiral Fletcher was waiting for him. 300 American bomber and torpedo planes attacked the 4 Japanese carriers and sent them to the bottom. It was the most decisive naval engagement of the war and the Japanese navy was never able to mount a major offensive again.
Most Americans in the know about the raid figured it to be a suicide mission. But with the help of friendly Chinese villagers and militias, most of the men made it back safely. Some of the descendants of those Chinese villagers were on hand at the ceremony yesterday.
Seventy-six of the 80 men who flew that hazardous mission "belong to the ages now" as Secretary Stanton said after the death of Abraham Lincoln. For any age, and for all time, they will be remembered as the best of us who performed magnificently under the most trying of circumstances. They exit the stage carrying with them the thanks of a grateful - and awestruck - nation.