The revered World War II heroes will lift their goblets, sip their 117-year-old cognac and say good-bye to a decades-old tradition of gathering with their comrades to reflect on their contribution to American history. “It’s bittersweet,” said Wes Fields, who lives in Destin and has served as the Raiders’ security guard and escort for decades.
He will attend the toast at the National Museum of the Air Force on Nov. 9. “You want to be involved in it, but in a sense you don’t because you dread it. It’s coming to an end,” Fields said. On April 18, 1942, 80 men led by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle took off in B-25s from an aircraft carrier to bomb Japan. It was the first retaliation after Pearl Harbor, and while the physical damage to Japan was minimal the raid was a tremendous boost for morale back home. Nearly every year since the raid, the men had gathering for a reunion —the last of which was held in Fort Walton Beach earlier this year. As part of the tradition, they hold a toast before a set of 80 goblets engraved with each Raider’s name. After the toast, they overturn the goblet of any Raider who passed on that year.
Three of the remaining four Raiders — 98-year-old Lt. Col. Dick Cole, 93-year-old Lt. Col. Ed Saylor and 92-year-old Staff Sgt. David Thatcher — will attend their final toast. They will open the famed bottle of Hennessy Very Special cognac from 1896, the year Jimmy Doolittle was born.
Lt. Col. Robert Hite, 93, likely will not attend because of his health. Only about 1,000 people have been invited. Fields, Ted Corcoran and Lyn Dominique will be among them. “It’s kind of like getting to go backstage with the Rolling Stones,” Corcoran, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, said as he sat in his office adorned with Doolittle memorabilia.
He’s organized hundreds of events in his career, but his work on two local Raider visits were his favorite, he said. Lynn Dominique of Shalimar also will be on hand. He has been a Doolittle Raider escort for years, including one time when he hopped over a barrier to push the wheelchair of a Raider who was getting left behind the group. They’ve become like family, sharing stories and plenty of jokes, he said.
“Getting to know these men has been one of the highlights of my life,” he said.
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