Sunday 21 January 2018

Doolittle Raiders make final toast

Doolittle raider Richard Cole opens an 1896 bottle of cognac he and his comrades had been saving for their final toast.
Doolittle raider Richard Cole opens an 1896 bottle of cognac he and his comrades had been saving for their final toast.

The surviving Doolittle Raiders, all in their 90s, considered their place in history for their daring Second World War bombing attack on Japan amid thousands of cheering fans as they made a final ceremonial toast to their fallen comrades.

A B-25 bomber flyover helped cap a memorial tribute in which a wreath was placed at the Doolittle Raider monument outside the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

Museum chiefs estimated about 10,000 people turned out for Veterans Day weekend events honouring the April 18 1942 mission credited with rallying American morale and throwing the Japanese off balance.

Acting air force secretary Eric Fanning said America was at a low point after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and other Axis successes, before the raid by "these 80 men who showed the nation that we were nowhere near defeat".

He noted that all volunteered for a mission with high risks throughout, from the launch of B-25 bombers from an aircraft carrier at sea, to the attack on Tokyo and other locations, and the lack of fuel to reach safe bases in China.

Only four of the 80 are still alive. The raiders said, at the time, they did not realise their mission would be considered an important event in turning the war's tide. It inflicted little major damage to the targets, but changed Japanese strategy while firing up Americans.

The raid embarrassed the Japanese high command, which resolved to prevent further such attacks by destroying the US carriers, a decision that led to the devastating defeat at the Battle of Midway in June 1942 that was a turning point in the Pacific war.

"It was what you do ... over time, we've been told what effect our raid had on the war and the morale of the people," Lt Col Edward Saylor, 93, said.

He said he was one of the lucky ones. "There were a whole bunch of guys in World War Two; a lot of people didn't come back," he said.

Staff Sgt David Thatcher, 92, said during the war, the raid seemed like "one of many bombing missions". The most harrowing part for him was the crash-landing of his plane, depicted in the 1944 film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, starring Spencer Tracy as Doolittle.

Three crew members died as raiders bailed out or crash-landed their planes in China, but most were helped to safety by Chinese villagers and soldiers. The Japanese retaliated by executing Chinese suspected of helping the Americans.

Three of the four surviving raiders were greeted by flag-waving well-wishers ranging from small children to fellow war veterans. The fourth could not travel because of health problems.

More than 600 people, including raiders' widows and children, descendants of Chinese villagers who helped them, and Pearl Harbour survivors, were expected for the invitation-only ceremony.

After Thomas Griffin died in February at 96, the survivors decided at the 71st anniversary reunion that it would be their last and that they would gather for one last toast together instead of waiting, as had been the original plan, for the last two survivors to make the toast.

"We didn't want to get a city all excited and plan and get everything set up for a reunion, and end up with no people because of our age," explained Lt Col Richard Cole, the oldest survivor at 98.

Lt Col Robert Hite, 93, could not come, but his son Wallace said his father made his own salute to the fallen with a silver goblet of wine at home earlier in the week.

Mr Hite is the last survivor of eight raiders who were captured by Japanese soldiers. Three were executed and another died in captivity.

The 80 silver goblets in the ceremony were presented to the raiders in 1959 by the city of Tucson, Arizona. The raiders' names are engraved twice, the second upside-down. During the ceremony, white-gloved cadets pour cognac into the participants' goblets. Those of the dead are turned upside-down.

The cognac is from 1896, the year Doolittle was born.


Press Association

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