With a final toast, the Doolittle Raiders symbolically said goodbye Saturday to a decades-old tradition and to a history that changed the course of the Pacific war in World War II.
Gathering from across the country together one last time, three surviving Raiders sipped from silver goblets engraved with their names and filled with 1896 Hennessy cognac in a once-private ceremony webcast to the world at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
Robert E. Cole, 98, a Dayton native, led the final toast to the 80 airmen who took off in 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers April 18, 1942, from the deck of the USS Hornet to bomb Japan four months after a Japanese surprise naval and air attack on Pearl Harbor. The onslaught devastated the U.S. Pacific fleet and killed more than 2,400 U.S. service members. Months later, Cole was in the lead aircraft and co-pilot to mission leader Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle.
Two white-gloved Air Force Academy cadets in dress blue uniforms laid three goblets before the Raiders and saluted each man after historian C.V. Glines read the names of each man on the mission.
“Gentleman, I propose a toast,” Cole said, as about 700 spectators watched one final time, “to those we lost on the mission and those that passed away since. Thank you very much and may they rest in peace.”
Eighty silver goblets, a 1959 gift from the city of Tucson, Ariz., are engraved twice, right side up and upside down, with the individual names of each Raider. When one of the Raiders dies, a goblet is turned upside to symbolize his passing. Only four remain upright.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, the service’s highest-ranking officer, said Air Force bomber pilots still judge the Doolittle Raiders as the standard by which they measure themselves.
The Raiders “hate to hear this, but Jimmy Doolittle and his Raiders are truly and lasting American heroes,” the four-star general said.
Acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning said the raid showed the courage and innovation of the World War II airmen flying from a carrier in a bomber that had never seen combat to attack a heavily defended nation and to attempt to land at unseen airfields in China in a country occupied by Japanese troops.
The toast capped a day of ceremony and remembrance of a living chapter of World War II history coming to an end.
About 10,000 flag-waving spectators lined both sides of the museum’s roadway to greet the airmen as they were chauffeured in Lincoln automobiles. Patriot Rider motorcycle riders escorted the entourage to a wreath-laying ceremony at the museum’s memorial park. Along with Cole, of Comfort, Texas, fellow Raiders Edward J. Saylor, 93, of Puyallup, Wash., and David J. Thatcher, 92, of Missoula, Mont., attended. A fourth Raider, Robert L. Hite, 93, of Nashville, Tenn. was unable to attend because of his health.
“It’s nice to enjoy all the hoopla, but in the back of your mind, you’re not too happy because the guys that you were with, they’re not here,” Cole said in an interview.
Sheridan Liu, 59, traveled from Los Angeles to stand along with the others to witness history one last time. His late father, Tung-Sheng Liu, had served as a translator to Raider Lt. Col. Travis Hoover and his crew when they crash-landed in China.
“This is the last event,” said Liu, who attended Doolittle reunions with his father. “It’s very momentous. It’s historic and it will only happen once in my lifetime, so I wanted to be here to witness it and to pay my respects.
“Definitely there’s some sadness, but it’s an incredible story that’s important historically,” he said.
Tom Bissette, 58, of Worthington, Ohio, brought family members with him to see the Raiders, who were last at the museum to mark the 70th anniversary of the raid in 2012.
“It’s amazing that they’re still able to do this in their 90s,” he said. “I’m glad they did this, because they may not be with us this April” to mark the next anniversary of the mission.
At a wreath-laying ceremony under the canopy of trees ablaze in yellow and orange leaves, five rumbling B-25s flew a missing man formation in a final aerial salute while Scottish bagpipes blared.
Paul Draper, 36, was a co-pilot flying the B-25 “Georgie’s Gal” based at Port Clinton, Ohio, to honor the airmen.
“It was amazing,” Draper said after the flight. “When we did the hole for the missing man, (I) just got goose bumps.”
More than 70 years after the attack, Saylor remembered ditching at sea once he and his crew dropped their bombs and several close calls with being discovered by the Japanese Army while making his way through China. His later wartime service sent him to Europe. He said the raid “didn’t get much attention during the war,” and was only in later years remembered.
“It was just a bombing raid that we got away with,” he said. “… We were glad we got away with it and that was that.”
He said he still speaks to groups — he had two schools he planned to speak at next week about the wartime raid — but now, he said, he was ready to end the tradition of the toast.
“Our time has come to taper off, so it’s OK,” he said.
Glines was bittersweet.
“This may be the last time I see them together,” said the 92-year-old Doolittle author who has attended Raider reunions since 1962. “It’s a little sad for me because I’ve known them so long and know the story of what they did in 1942.”