Things of Interest

SUBJECT: A Final Toast

This week, the few remaining Doolittle Raiders will reunite. In 1942
the 80 men bombed Tokyo in death-defying mission, retaliation for Pearl
Harbor .

A case of 80 goblets is brought to their annual reunions. When a
Raider dies a cup is upended. This year, there are four left. They’ll
toast the Raiders with aged cognac, and end reunions.

It’s the cup of brandy that no one wants to drink. On Tuesday, in Fort
Walton Beach, Florida, the surviving Doolittle Raiders will gather
publicly for the last time. They once were among the most universally
admired and revered men in the United States. There were 80 of the
Raiders in April 1942, when they carried out one of the most courageous
and heart-stirring military operations in this nation’s history. The
mere mention of their unit’s name, in those years, would bring tears to
the eyes of grateful Americans.

Now only four survive.

After Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, with the United States
reeling and wounded, something dramatic was needed to turn the war
effort around. Even though there were no friendly airfields close enough
to Japan for the United States to launch a retaliation, a daring plan
was devised. Sixteen B-25s were modified so that they could take off
from the deck of an aircraft carrier. This had never before been tried
— sending such big, heavy bombers from a carrier. The 16 five-man
crews, under the command of Lt. Col. James Doolittle, who himself flew
the lead plane off the USS Hornet, knew that they would not be able to
return to the carrier. They would have to hit Japan and then hope to
make it to China for a safe landing. But on the day of the raid, the
Japanese military caught wind of the plan. The Raiders were told that
they would have to take off from much farther out in the Pacific Ocean
than they had counted on. They were told that because of this they would
not have enough fuel to make it to safety.

And those men went anyway. They bombed Tokyo, and then flew as far as
they could. Four planes crash-landed; 11 more crews bailed out, and
three of the Raiders died. Eight more were captured; three were
executed. Another died of starvation in a Japanese prison camp. One crew
made it to Russia . The Doolittle Raid sent a message from the United
States to its enemies, and to the rest of the world: We will fight. And,
no matter what it takes, we will win.

Of the 80 Raiders, 62 survived the war. They were celebrated as
national heroes, models of bravery. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced a
motion picture based on the raid; “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” starring
Spencer Tracy and Van Johnson, was a patriotic and emotional box-office
hit, and the phrase became part of the national lexicon. In the
movie-theater previews for the film, MGM proclaimed that it was
presenting the story “with supreme pride.”

Beginning in 1946, the surviving Raiders have held a reunion each
April, to commemorate the mission. The reunion is in a different city
each year. In 1959, the city of Tucson , Arizona , as a gesture of
respect and gratitude, presented the Doolittle Raiders with a set of 80
silver goblets. Each goblet was engraved with the name of a Raider.

Every year, a wooden display case bearing all 80 goblets is transported
to the reunion city. Each time a Raider passes away, his goblet is
turned upside down in the case at the next reunion, as his old friends
bear solemn witness.

Also in the wooden case is a bottle of 1896 Hennessy Very Special
cognac. The year is not happenstance: 1896 was when Jimmy Doolittle was
born.

There has always been a plan: When there are only two surviving
Raiders, they would open the bottle, at last drink from it, and toast
their comrades who preceded them in death. As 2013 began, there were
five living Raiders; then, in February, Tom Griffin passed away at age
96.

What a man he was. After bailing out of his plane over a mountainous
Chinese forest after the Tokyo raid, he became ill with malaria, and
almost died. When he recovered, he was sent to Europe to fly more combat
missions. He was shot down, captured, and spent 22 months in a German
prisoner of war camp.

The selflessness of these men, the sheer guts … there was a passage
in the Cincinnati Enquirer obituary for Mr. Griffin that, on the
surface, had nothing to do with the war, but that emblematizes the depth
of his sense of duty and devotion:

“When his wife became ill and needed to go into a nursing home, he
visited her every day. He walked from his house to the nursing home, fed
his wife and at the end of the day brought home her clothes. At night,
he washed and ironed her clothes. Then he walked them up to her room the
next morning. He did that for three years until her death in 2005.”

So now, out of the original 80, only four Raiders remain: Dick Cole
(Doolittle’s co-pilot on the Tokyo raid), Robert Hite, Edward Saylor and
David Thatcher. All are in their 90s. They have decided that there are
too few of them for the public reunions to continue.

The events in Fort Walton Beach this week will mark the end. It has
come full circle; Florida’s nearby Eglin Field was where the Raiders
trained in secrecy for the Tokyo mission. The town is planning to do all
it can to honor the men: a six-day celebration of their valor, including
luncheons, a dinner and a parade.

Do the men ever wonder if those of us for whom they helped save the
country have tended to it in a way that is worthy of their sacrifice?
They don’t talk about that, at least not around other people. But if you
find yourself near Fort Walton Beach this week, and if you should
encounter any of the Raiders, you might want to offer them a word of
thanks. I can tell you from firsthand observation that they appreciate
hearing that they are remembered.

The men have decided that after this final public reunion they will
wait until a later date — sometime this year — to get together once
more, informally and in absolute privacy. That is when they will open
the bottle of brandy. The years are flowing by too swiftly now; they are
not going to wait until there are only two of them.

They will fill the four remaining upturned goblets.

And raise them in a toast to those who are gone.