With bombers streaking overhead, thousands gathered Tuesday at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force to catch a glimpse of 101-year-old Doolittle Tokyo Raider Richard E. Cole and to mark the 75th anniversary of the Raiders’ daring raid against Japan in World War II.
Doug Bruser took one day off work to see something he and others may never see again in an event both somber and festive.
“It’s a once-a-lifetime chance to do it,” said Bruser, 55, of Mason.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldein compared the bravery of the Raiders on “a one-way mission” that for most ended in crash landings or bailing out over China to the signers of the Declaration of Independence who stood up to an oppressor.
Eighty Army Air Forces airmen climbed aboard 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers, taking off from the deck of the USS Hornet on a mission to bomb Japan on April 18, 1942, in retaliation for the Japanese attack on the U.S. fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Legendary airman Jimmy Doolittle led the attack and Cole, a Dayton native who lives in Texas, was his co-pilot. Doolittle was given the Medal of Honor for leading the attack.
“Like our Founding Fathers, this all-volunteer force acted as the force of all Americans,” Goldfein told those gathered.
“… They provided an uncertain America with hope, that yes, the war could be won,” the four-star general said. “… The power of a few men ensured that imperial aggression did not go unchecked and they set in motion a course of events shaping the outcome of World War II and our America’s future.”
Fifteen of the 16 bombers crashed landed or were abandoned in the air as crews bailed out after the raid. One bomber landed in Russia where the U.S. crew was interned until they escaped in 1943.
The Japanese captured eight airmen in China and held them as POWs. Three were executed.
The downed airmen were helped by the Chinese, who paid a heavy price: Japan killed 250,000 in retribution for aiding the Americans, historians say.
Bombers take to the skies above Dayton
Under clear skies Tuesday, 11 World War II-era B-25 bombers from as far as California and Texas rumbled over in a salute to Cole and the Raiders.
About an hour later, two B-1 Lancer bombers streaked over near the speed of sound as a bugler played the final notes of Taps.
The Air Force museum estimated 16,000 attended the memorial ceremony while 8,000 toured a line-up of B-25s on the runway Tuesday. Another 5,000 viewed the bombers after they arrived Monday.
Cole, wearing a white Doolittle Raiders cap and blue jacket, sat next to Goldfein as thousands heard about the Raiders accolades decades ago.
“I was actually hoping to catch a glimpse of Col. Cole,” said Ann Unlenhake, 58, of Riverside, and a retired Air Force nurse standing in the crowd.
Sixty-year-old Bruce Scheib of Mason said his late father, a U.S. Army soldier, credited the Raiders and later the atomic bomb attacks on Japan for saving his life to avoid an invasion of Japan.
“These men are the true heroes of this country,” Scheib said. “The young generation needs to take note.”
In a private ceremony earlier in the day Tuesday, Cole turned over one of two silver goblets that were still standing to mark the death of fellow Raider David J. Thatcher, who died at age 94 last June in Missoula, Mont.
For his son, Jeff Thatcher, the finality of the act was emotional.
“It was a really powerful moment and really hit me harder than I thought,” said Thatcher, 61, of Little Rock. Ark.
As a former Air Force Academy cadet, Goldfein remembered seeing the goblets and reflecting on what they meant. The goblets were later brought to the Air Force museum, also home to a Congressional Gold Medal given to the Raiders.
On Tuesday, he came full circle witnessing Cole turn Thatcher’s goblet upside down.
“There are moments in a career when the whole idea of service and the long blue line just washes over you and today is one of those moments,” Goldfein said later.
The museum has 80 goblets, each engraved with the names of the crewmen on the Doolittle mission.
Today, only Cole’s stands upright.