On April 18, 1942, in response to the Japanese attack the previous December on Pearl Harbor, 80 men in 16 B-25 bombers took off on a secret mission to bomb Japan. Led by James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, they became known as the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders.
On Saturday, three of the four remaining Raiders met for what is likely to be the last time at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.
Waving to the crowd were former Lt. Col. Richard Cole, 98, of Texas, former Lt. Col. Edward Saylor, 93, of Washington state and 92-year-old former Staff Sgt. David Thatcher of Montana. Former Lt. Col. Robert Hite, 93 and a fellow Raider, could not make the trip from his home in Tennessee.
After the motorcade pulled into Memorial Park, Cole addressed the crowd: “Ladies and gentlemen, once again we meet in this memorial park to reflect on the mission more than 71 years ago. We are grateful we had the opportunity to serve.”
Following a B-25 bomber flyover, the Raiders were escorted to a private room above the museum. Next to each man was a framed photograph of his younger self.
Saylor, holding court on one side of the room, says younger generations want him to talk about World War II.
“I got two commitments next week: high schools, rotary club, Kiwanis, military outfits. Lots of interest in it, so I speak quite often,” Saylor says.
Across the room, Thatcher gives his thoughts on the mission. “It’s really surprising that the public would remember a raid like that so many years ago [was] just a part of the war effort,” he says.
But the Doolittle Raid is seen as a turning point in the war. The raid on Japan boosted the low morale of Americans and forced the Japanese to reevaluate their strategy.
Thatcher’s son, Jeffrey, says his father has always been humble about the role he played. “They didn’t brag about their exploits. They just felt like it was their duty, and they went and did it and just moved forward with their lives,” he says.
In 1959, officials in Tucson, Ariz., presented the Raiders with a set of 80 name-engraved silver goblets. They’re kept in a velvet-lined box, and after each year’s toast, the goblets of those who have died are turned upside down. Four remain upright.
This time, the Raiders bring out an 1896 vintage bottle of Hennessy cognac. It was given to Jimmy Doolittle on his 60th birthday, and it has been kept unopened by the Raiders.
Cole is asked to break the wax seal, but it’s not an easy task. When the 98-year-old succeeds, the final toast is offered: “Gentleman, I propose a toast to those we lost on the mission and those who have passed away since. Thank you very much, and may they rest in peace.”
More than 71 years of tragedy, bravery and inspiration have lead to this moment. And finally, the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders declare their mission is over.