By BOB JAQUES, For General Aviation News
For what was promoted as the last and final reunion of the Doolittle Raiders, hundreds of fans and admirers were in Dayton, Ohio, on April 16-18 to attend the Raiders 68th Reunion.
The National Museum of the United States Air Force hosted the reunion, which featured four of the original members of the famous Doolittle Raid of April 18, 1942. This was the mission that showed Japan they were vulnerable to attack bu,t more importantly, it boosted the morale of the American people, who were still in shock over the attack on Pearl Harbor. Of the original group of 80 volunteers who flew that historic raid on Japan 68 years ago, only eight are still living and four of them were able to travel to Dayton for this reunion.
The four attending Raiders were: Lt. Col. Richard Cole, 94, who was the co-pilot on plane #1; Maj. Thomas Griffin, 92, who was the navigator on plane #9; Lt. Col. Robert Hite, 90, who was the co-pilot on plane #16; and Master Sergeant David Thatcher, 88, who was the engineer and gunner on plane #7.
In the mission against Japan in the early years of World War II, 16 Mitchell B-25 bombers took off from an aircraft carrier, the USS HORNET, to bomb Tokyo and other selected cities. This was the first and only time a bomber took off from an aircraft carrier, and the first time the B-25 was used in combat.
Most of the activities of the Raiders were private and not open to the public. However, on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoon from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. the Raiders held an autograph opportunity for the public. The rule was simple: Only one autograph per person. Lines started forming for the autograph session four hours ahead of the scheduled time. When a man in line was asked why he would wait a long time for an autograph, he replied, “I am in the presence of greatness. We may never see this historic opportunity again.” The four Raiders were seated at a table signing everything from model airplanes to books and photographs. They were smiling and cordial to each person they met.
Since this was heralded as the last and final reunion of the Raiders, a very unique event was planned for the occasion. A gathering of 17 B-25 bombers from all around the country were allowed to land on an abandoned runway behind the museum as a tribute to the Raiders. The B-25s started arriving at 7 a.m. on Friday morning and landed at 5 minute intervals until all were safely down. They were lined up wingtip to wingtip along the grass edge of the runway. The public was allowed to see and photograph each airplane and have a chance to talk with the crew. This was the largest gathering of B-25s in one place since World War II. On Sunday, shortly after noon, all 17 B-25s took off and flew over the museum in formation.
In a private ceremony, the Raiders held up a sterling silver goblet and offered a toast to the Raiders who had died since their last reunion. Each of the 80 silver goblets has the name of a Raider engraved twice: Once rightside up and once upside down. If a Raider is living, the goblet is placed rightside up, and when the Raider dies the goblet is placed upside down. In either position the name is readable. The collection of goblets is permanently housed at the museum and is available for the public to view.
A banquet for about 400 people was held Saturday night in the museum. One of the featured speakers was Michael Donley, the Secretary of the Air Force. Looking at the four seated Raiders at one table, Donley said, “It is an honor for me to be with you at this historic reunion.”
The days at the reunion passed quickly and the four aging heroes were ready to return home. Will there be another reunion next year? Nothing definite was decided, but for those who came to this 68th reunion their memories will last for a long time.
For more information: NationalMuseum.af.mil/DoolittleRaiders