It's the cup of brandy that no one wants to drink.
On Tuesday, in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, the surviving
Doolittle Raiders gathered publicly for the last time.
They once were among the most universally admired and revered men
in the United States. There were 80 of the Raiders in April 1942,
when they carried out one of the most courageous and
heart-stirring military operations in this nation's history. The
mere mention of their unit's name, in those years, would bring
tears to the eyes of grateful Americans.
Now only four survive.
After Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, with the United
States reeling and wounded, something dramatic was needed to turn
the war effort around.
Even though there were no friendly airfields close enough to
Japan for the United States to launch a retaliation, a daring
plan was devised. Sixteen B-25s were modified so that they could
take off from the deck of an aircraft carrier. This had never
before been tried -- sending such big, heavy bombers from a
The 16 five-man crews, under the command of Lt. Col. James
Doolittle, who himself flew the lead plane off the USS Hornet,
knew that they would not be able to return to the carrier. They
would have to hit Japan and then hope to make it to China for a
But on the day of the raid, the Japanese military caught wind of
the plan. The Raiders were told that they would have to take off
from much farther out in the Pacific Ocean than they had counted
on. They were told that because of this they would not have
enough fuel to make it to safety.
And those men went anyway.
They bombed Tokyo, and then flew as far as they could. Four
planes crash-landed; 11 more crews bailed out, and three of the
Raiders died. Eight more were captured; three were executed.
Another died of starvation in a Japanese prison camp. One crew
made it to Russia.
The Doolittle Raid sent a message from the United States to its
enemies, and to the rest of the world: We will fight. And, no
matter what it takes, we will win.
Of the 80 Raiders, 62 survived the war. They were celebrated as
national heroes, models of bravery. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced
a motion picture based on the raid; "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,"
starring Spencer Tracy and Van Johnson, was a patriotic and
emotional box-office hit, and the phrase became part of the
national lexicon. In the movie-theater previews for the film, MGM
proclaimed that it was presenting the story "with supreme pride."
Beginning in 1946, the surviving Raiders have held a reunion each
April, to commemorate the mission. The reunion is in a different
city each year. In 1959, the city of Tucson, Arizona, as a
gesture of respect and gratitude, presented the Doolittle Raiders
with a set of 80 silver goblets. Each goblet was engraved with
the name of a Raider.
Every year, a wooden display case bearing all 80 goblets is
transported to the reunion city. Each time a Raider passes away,
his goblet is turned upside down in the case at the next reunion,
as his old friends bear solemn witness.
Also in the wooden case is a bottle of 1896 Hennessy Very Special
cognac. The year is not happenstance: 1896 was when Jimmy
Doolittle was born.
There has always been a plan: When there are only two surviving
Raiders, they would open the bottle, at last drink from it, and
toast their comrades who preceded them in death.
As 2013 began, there were five living Raiders; then, in February,
Tom Griffin passed away at age 96.
What a man he was. After bailing out of his plane over a
mountainous Chinese forest after the Tokyo raid, he became ill
with malaria, and almost died. When he recovered, he was sent to
Europe to fly more combat missions. He was shot down, captured,
and spent 22 months in a German prisoner of war camp.
The selflessness of these men, the sheer guts ... there was a
passage in the Cincinnati Enquirer obituary for Mr. Griffin that,
on the surface, had nothing to do with the war, but that
emblematizes the depth of his sense of duty and devotion:
"When his wife became ill and needed to go into a nursing home,
he visited her every day. He walked from his house to the nursing
home, fed his wife and at the end of the day brought home her
clothes. At night, he washed and ironed her clothes. Then he
walked them up to her room the next morning. He did that for
three years until her death in 2005."
So now, out of the original 80, only four Raiders remain: Dick
Cole (Doolittle's co-pilot on the Tokyo raid), Robert Hite,
Edward Saylor and David Thatcher. All are in their 90s. They have
decided that there are too few of them for the public reunions to
The events in Fort Walton Beach this week will mark the end. It
has come full circle; Florida's nearby Eglin Field was where the
Raiders trained in secrecy for the Tokyo mission. The town is
planning to do all it can to honor the men: a six-day celebration
of their valor, including luncheons, a dinner and a parade.
Do the men ever wonder if those of us for whom they helped save
the country have tended to it in a way that is worthy of their
sacrifice? They don't talk about that, at least not around other
people. But if you find yourself near Fort Walton Beach this
week, and if you should encounter any of the Raiders, you might
want to offer them a word of thanks. I can tell you from
firsthand observation that they appreciate hearing that they are
The men have decided that after this final public reunion they
will wait until a later date -- some time this year -- to get
together once more, informally and in absolute privacy. That is
when they will open the bottle of brandy. The years are flowing
by too swiftly now; they are not going to wait until there are
only two of them.
They will fill the four remaining upturned goblets.
And raise them in a toast to those who are gone.
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TO THOSE WHO WERE TOO YOUNG TO KNOW ABOUT THESE GUYS. THIS SHOULD
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