It was a daring raid, militarily a tiny pinprick but psychologically a tremendous blow — and to thinking Japanese officers, a warning that their Empire had no roof, and a harbinger of the devastation that the 20th Air Force would bring to their nation, even as Navy submarines starved Japan literally of food, and figuratively of war materials. A small force of medium bombers, launched improbably from the aircraft carrier Hornet, bombed Tokyo and other Japanese cities, shocking the Japanese public as much as the military government.
Last week, the few survivors still able — Doolitte’s Crew #1 copilot, then-lieutenant Richard Cole; Crew 15 flight engineer, then-sergeant Ed Saylor who would retire as a Lt. Colonel, and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo author Ted Lawson’s Crew 7 “The Ruptured Duck” engineer/gunner then-sergeant David Thatcher, sipped brandy from a ceremonial bottle that Doolittle had sourced some sixty years ago. The tradition was that the last man standing would drink the bottle; in the 1940s no one expected four of the raid survivors to survive into their 90s. (The fourth, Crew 16 “Bat out of Hell” co-pilot then-2nd-Lt. Robert Hite, who was captured by the Japanese after the raid, was too unwell to attend; he participated from home).
“May they rest in peace,” Lt. Col. Richard Cole, 98, said before he and fellow Raiders — Lt. Col. Edward Saylor, 93, and Staff Sgt. David Thatcher, 92 — sipped cognac from specially engraved silver goblets. The 1896 cognac was saved for the occasion after being passed down from Doolittle.
Hundreds invited to the ceremony, including family members of deceased Raiders, watched as the three each called out “here” as a historian read the names of all 80 of the original airmen.
The fourth surviving Raider, Lt. Col. Robert Hite, 93, couldn’t travel to Ohio because of health problems.
But son Wallace Hite said his father, wearing a Raiders blazer and other traditional garb for their reunions, made his own salute to the fallen with a silver goblet of wine at home in Nashville, Tenn., earlier in the week.
The ceremony was held at the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, where the silver cups — one for each Raider, upright for the living, inverted for the deceased — have long been kept. Dayton, of course, was also home of the Wright Brothers. Next month it will be 110 years since the Wrights’ first flight and what a century-plus it has been. These last few warriors of the Second World War, whose mortal end is so near, have written their names in the books of immortality with their daring feat. May they be remembered as long as men gather to tell stories of valor and triumph.
For more information on the Doolittle Raiders, the above news story has an overview, but a fully rich experience is available at their own website, maintained by Raider son Tood Joyce, which, with this last reunion over, is declaring Mission Complete. Ave atque vale from the admiring groundpounders at WeaponsMan.com.