By ROBERT JAQUES
The Doolittle Raiders held their 71st and final public reunion in Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, April 16-20.
Of the 80 men who took part in the daring mission to bomb Japan, only four are still living. Three were able to attend this final reunion: Lt. Col. Richard Cole, 97, co-pilot on plane #1 who flew with Col. Jimmy Doolittle; Lt. Col. Edward Saylor, 93, an engineer on plane #15; and Staff Sgt. David Thatcher, 92, an engineer and gunner. The fourth, Lt. Col. Bob Hite, 95, co-pilot of plane #16, could not travel due to illness.
The surviving Raiders elected to have their final reunion at Ft. Walton Beach since this is where their mission began in 1942 at nearby Eglin Air Force Base. That’s where the men and their B-25 bombers came to practice short field takeoffs using less than 500 feet to get airborne. This was the maximum distance on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS HORNET the bombers could use to get airborne.
On April 18, 1942, 80 men flying 16 B-25s took off from that aircraft carrier and bombed several cities in Japan, then headed to Chinese airfields. However, the carrier task force was spotted by a Japanese trawler, and the planes had to takeoff 200 miles farther away than planned. This meant the planes used more fuel and could not reach the airfields in China. Some of the planes ditched along the Chinese coast, while others crash landed in the mountains.
The pilot of plane #8 decided to land in Vladivostok, Russia, in hopes of getting more fuel to continue into China. The Russians confiscated the airplane and interred the crew for about a year before they escaped through Iran. After the war, the Russians did not return the airplane and it remained “lost.”
At this year’s reunion, Charles Runion, from Lebanon, Tennessee, came with a fascinating story that gave closure to this tale of the “missing” airplane. In the mid-1990s a friend of his, who spent time in Russia and had made friends with a Russian Air Force officer, was taken to an area where derelict and broken aircraft were scattered. He recognized only the nose section of a B-25 and went over to inspect it closely.
The front of the airplane had been crushed and heavily damaged, but he was able to obtain the data plate. He later gave this historic and rare data plate to Runion, who brought it to the Reunion to show the Raiders. Runion displays the data plate in his own aviation museum in Lebanon called Wings Remembered.
The Raiders’ mission caused very little strategic damage to Japan, but it proved to the Japanese people they were vulnerable to an attack, and it raised American morale considerably. The Raiders were all volunteers and are an important part of American history and legacy.
Over the years, the Raider’s reunions have been in various cities and the public has always been allowed to attend. However, there are certain private events the Raiders do not open to the public.
One of these is the ceremony where they drink a toast to the memory of a Raider who died since their last reunion with special silver goblets given to the Raiders by the city of Tucson, Arizona, when they had a reunion there in 1959. There are 80 goblets with each man’s name engraved twice. One is right side up and the other is upside down. When that person dies, the goblet is turned upside down and placed in a special display box. The goblets are on display at the National Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.
This year, the Raiders raised a toast and turned over a goblet to the memory of Tom Griffin, 96, who died Feb. 26. He was the navigator on plane #9.
The tradition that has yet to happen is the opening of a special bottle of 1896 Hennessy Cognac by the last surviving Raiders (Doolittle was born in 1896). Later this year, the four remaining survivors will open the bottle and have that final toast. Whenever it is, it will be very private.
When the announcement came that this would be the last reunion the public could attend, reaction was swift. Less than 48 hours after the reunion was announced, all available seats were sold. More than 600 people attended events throughout the weekend to see, hear, and meet these heroes.
To support the 71st Reunion, four B-25 bombers flew into the Destin, Florida airport, which is adjacent to Ft. Walton Beach, for static display and to sell rides. Two World War II era North American T-6 trainers also arrived for static display.
The B-25 “Panchito,” owned by Larry Kelly from Barstow, Maryland, was flown by Cole for a 35-minute flight along the coastline. Cole had a qualified co-pilot with him, but did most of the flying. After he got out of the airplane, I asked him, “Did you land the airplane?” He smiled, pointed to his co-pilot and said “Yes, but with a little help.”
The Raiders were honored by Northwest Florida State College in Niceville, Florida, by having a permanent exhibit on campus dedicated to the Raiders and their mission. The mascot name for the school is the Raiders, which was named in honor of the Doolittle Raiders in 1964. The three Raiders, Cole, Saylor, and Thatcher, attended the dedication of the exhibit on campus.
During the Friday luncheon, the emcee presented each Raider with a recognition and congratulatory note of their important mission signed by President Obama.
As in previous reunions, the Raiders were very gracious to agree to a couple of two-hour autograph sessions. Anyone could get in line but have only two items signed. The lines were always long as some people waited two to three hours to get their signatures. The Raiders greeted each person with a smile, a handshake, and then signed their items.
As the week ended with the Saturday night banquet, the 600 plus guests gave the Raiders one last standing round of applause. This tribute from the audience showed their appreciation for the Raiders’ part in one of America’s finest missions of World War II. God bless them all.
For more information: DoolittleRaider.com