The three of the four surviving crew members from the history-making World War II Doolittle Raid, all of them in their 90s, have traveled to a Florida Air Force base for a final public reunion. Retired Lt. Col. Richard Cole, 97, David Thatcher, 91, and Retired Lt. Col. Edward Saylor, 93, are at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle for a final public reunion of the Doolittle Raiders.
They decided to meet at Eglin because it is where they trained for their top-secret mission in the winter of 1942, just weeks after the Japanese devastated the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.The fourth surviving raider, 93-year-old Robert Hite, could not make the event.
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The attack, which occurred 71 years ago Thursday, helped to boost a wounded nation’s morale in the aftermath of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. ‘At the time of the raid, you know the war was on and it was just a mission we went on, we were lucky enough to survive it but it didn’t seem like that big of a deal at the time. ‘I spent the rest of the war in Europe and with the guys in Normandy and taking bodies out of airplanes and stuff and I didn’t feel like a hero,’ Saylor told the Associated Press Wednesday following a ceremony in which an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter maintenance hangar at the base was named in his honor.
Saylor joked with the audience of young airmen and local dignitaries. ‘My reaction when I out found out we were bombing Japan from an aircraft carrier was that it was too far to swim back home so we might as well go ahead with it,’ he said. The 16 planes, loaded with one-ton bombs, took off from the aircraft carrier on less than 500 feet of runway. They had only enough fuel to drop their bombs and try to land in China with the hope that the Chinese would help them to safety.
‘We were all pretty upbeat about it, we didn’t have any bad thoughts about what was going to happen. We just did what we had to do,’ said Cole, who was Doolittle’s co-pilot. Wednesday’s event at the base is part of a weeklong series of activities planned by the military and community leaders to honor the men. Thomas Casey, business manager for the Raiders and a longtime fan of the men, said the four survivors have decided they can no longer keep up with the demands of group public appearances.
‘The mission ends here in Fort Walton Beach on Saturday night, but their legacy starts then,’ he said.
Casey said he hopes everyone who has had a chance to interact with the men will keep their legacy alive. ‘I want them to tell the story to their children, their grandchildren, their neighbors and keep their story going because their story is worthwhile telling.’ At each reunion is a case containing 80 silver goblets with the name of each raider inscribed right-side up and upside down on a single goblet. The men toast their fallen comrades each year and turn their goblets upside down in their honor.
They have also saved a bottle of Hennessy cognac from 1896, the year mission commander James Doolittle was born. The Raiders had said the final two survivors would open the bottle, but they have since decided that the four survivors will meet in private later this year for the toast.
At Wednesday’s dedication of the Saylor Hangar, the three men posed for pictures beneath a vintage B-25 bomber and an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that sat beside it.
Col. Andrew Toth, commander of the F-35 squadron at Eglin, told the men, ‘You boosted the morale of this nation just four months after Pearl Harbor. Thank you for your dedication and service.’ Young airmen and women obtained the old veterans’ autographs and thanked them for their service. ‘I’ve seen the movies – you know, `Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Matesick. ‘I think this is awesome because they actually trained here at Eglin and they did the ceremony to actually name a hangar after one of the guys. It’s pretty cool.’
Larry Kelley owns the vintage B-25 aircraft that Cole flew a day earlier during a demonstration of four restored B-25s from the World War II era. Kelley choked up when trying to explain what it has meant to him to meet Cole and the other raiders over the past several years and to have the men fly in his aircraft. ‘Here are some of the most famous aviators that came out of World War II and they’ve never put a nickel in their pocket’ as a result of their fame, he said. Instead, he said, any money from book signings and appearances has always gone to the James H. Doolittle Scholarship Fund for aviation students.
Kelley said sitting beside Cole while Cole took the controls of the B-25 and landed the aircraft was a highlight of his life as a World War II and aviation buff. ‘Oh yeah, he did most of the flying today. He did the landing. He’s dead on. I kept looking over the altimeter. I told him to hold 1,500 feet and I kept looking at the altimeter and it was dead on: not 1,499 feet, not 1,501 feet. He had the altimeter pegged at 1,500 feet,’ he said.
‘It is a very private moment,’ Cole, a Dayton native who lives in Comfort, Texas, told the AP at last year’s reunion. ‘You remember the ones who didn’t make it, you think about them, and you are sorry they aren’t with us. And then the ones fortunate to still be living trade off stories.’ The s tories are many, their bond forged in a daring mission. ‘I didn’t expect to survive. We should have been shot down,’ said Saylor, 92, a Brusett, Montana, native who lives in Puyallup, Washington. Pilots volunteered and trained in Florida for what they only knew was ‘extremely hazardous.’ Navigator Griffin, from Green Bay, Wisconsin, got top-secret briefings with pilot David Jones in Washington, just five months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
‘We needed to hit back,’ recalled Griffin, now 95 and living near Cincinnati. Once at sea, the rest learned targets – factories, plants, military facilities on mainland Japan. They knew the uncertainties: what if the Navy task force was attacked? What defences would they face? And with B-25s unable to land on a carrier decks, could they reach friendly bases in China? ‘We didn’t know we were supposed to be afraid,’ summarized Saylor, 22 then.
The Raiders brushed aside Doolittle’s assurances that anyone was free to withdraw.
‘It was a mission in the war. We did what we were required to do,’ said Thatcher, of Missoula, Montana, age 90. After encountering Japanese patrols, the raid launched ahead of plan, some 200 miles farther from shore for fuel-stretched bombers. Doolittle’s plane took off first at 08:20 from a pitching carrier deck. ‘It’s the Charge of the Light Brigade,’ said historian Hugh Ambrose. ‘They know that a betting man would probably bet against them … brave heroism in the face of an enemy that at that time was winning the war.’ They flew low in radio silence, skimming seas and then treetops. Cole recalls the country song ‘Wabash Cannonball’ running through his head. He tapped his foot in time until Doolittle shot him a questioning look.
They were greeted by anti-aircraft guns and puffs of black smoke. Flak shook planes. ‘As we got there, there was no conversation, until the bombardier told Col. Doolittle that the initial bombing target was in sight,’ said Cole, who was in the lead plane. ‘At that point, Col. Doolittle said to open up the bomb bay doors.’
The bombs dropped, ‘and we got the heck out of there.’ ‘It is a very private moment. You remember the ones who didn’t make it, you think about them, and you are sorry they aren’t with us. And then the ones fortunate to still be living trade off stories.’
-Lt Col Richard Cole
The danger was just beginning. All 16 planes lacked enough fuel to reach bases and either crash-landed or ditched in dark, rough weather along China’s coast south of Shanghai.
‘The most scary time for me was standing in a plane at 9,000 feet, in the middle of a pretty bad storm, looking down into a black hole and ready to exit into the unknown,’ said Cole.
‘I never learned how to swim,’ added a chuckling Saylor, who held onto a damaged raft. ‘I was raised on a cattle ranch out in Montana.’
Thatcher was aboard the plane dubbed ‘The Ruptured Duck,’ which crash-landed into water. Pilot Ted Lawson’s leg was badly broken, later amputated. They narrowly stayed ahead of Japanese searchers, who killed villagers suspected of helping the Americans.
‘We had a lot of near-misses, when they raided places we had been the night before,’ said Griffin, now 95 and living near Cincinnati.
Eight Raiders were captured, and three executed. A fourth died in captivity. Three had died off the coast of China. ‘The Chinese people were of immeasurable help to us,’ Cole reflected. ‘If it hadn’t been for them, I wouldn’t be alive today to tell you about this.’ Although the Tokyo raid inflicted light damage compared to Pearl Harbour, it shook Japanese confidence and uplifted Americans, said Ambrose, author of ‘The Pacific.’ ‘It was a symbolic act,’ he said. ‘It did wonders for the American people. It was just the sort of calling card that let people understand that … yes, we’re going to do it.’
Surviving Raiders got new assignments. Ten more would die in the war.
Source; Daily Mail