It’s the cup of brandy no one wants to drink.
Recently, in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, the surviving Doolittle Raiders gathered publicly for the last time. They were, and continue to be, 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 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 U.S. to launch a retaliation, a daring plan was devised. Sixteen B-25’s were modified so they could take off from the deck of an aircraft carrier. This had never been tried before–sending big, heavy bombers from a carrier.
The 16, five-man crews, under the command of Lt. Col. James Doolittle, who himself flew the lead plan off the USS Hornet, knew 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 navy caught sight of the carrier. The raiders were told they would have to take off from much farther out in the Pacific 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 original 80 Raiders, 62 survived the war. They were celebrated as national heroes and models of bravery. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced a motion picture based on the raid, “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo,” a patriotic and emotional box-office hit, and the phrase became part of a national lexicon.
Beginning in 1946, the surviving Raiders have held a reunion each April to commemorate the mission. Every year, a wooden display case bearing 80 silver goblets with each Raider’s name engraved on it 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. The case also holds a bottle of 1896 Hennessy cognac. The year is not happenstance: 1896 was when Jimmy Doolittle was born. There has always been a plan. When there were only two surviving Raiders, they would open the bottle 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.
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 there 90’s.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 and they are not going to wait until there are only two of them. Instead, they will fill the four remaining goblets and raise them in a toast to those who are gone.*
God Bless Doolittle’s Raiders, may we all pay homage to the greatness of these men, and raise a glass to their incredible honor and bravery.
*The source of the original article is unknown