Doolittle’s survivors: Now you’ll learn the rest of the story

Eight of the surviving 16 Doolittle Raiders raise their goblets for their fallen brothers during their 64th reunion in Dayton, Ohio, April 18, 2006. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Cecilio M. Ricardo Jr.)
Eight of the surviving 16 Doolittle Raiders raise their goblets for their fallen brothers during their 64th reunion in Dayton, Ohio,
April 18,
2006. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Cecilio M. Ricardo Jr.)
We do not have enough heroes! In the 21st century we have more news outlets, more reporters and more time devoted to transmitting the news than ever before, but we rarely get behind-the-scenes stories of valor and bravery. To fill that gap, I’ll tell you “the rest of the story” of 80 of our country’s bravest.

In the early spring of 1942, America was still reeling from the devastation of Pearl Harbor. Morale was low as news kept coming in of further Japanese advances in the South Pacific and throughout Southeast Asia. On December 21, 1941, President Roosevelt asked for any ideas from his military advisors of a way to strike back at Japan and boost American morale. Navy Captain Francis Low reported that he had observed an experiment being carried out at the Naval Airfield at Norfolk,Virginia. There Colonel James Doolittle had marked out an area on a landing strip the exact size of an aircraft carrier deck. He was practicing with his squadron how to manage a take off with bombers in the short distance.

Volunteers were asked for and all 80 men of the Doolittle squadron stepped up. They were told the mission was highly dangerous and the possibility of survival no more than 50-50. On the night of April 18, 1942, just four months and 11 days after Pearl Harbor, a flight of 16 medium range B-25 bombers lifted off the deck of the USS Hornet, deep in the Pacific Ocean. They had to launch much farther out than they had wanted because they had been
spotted by a Japanese scout plane and the element of surprise was in jeopardy. They flew in at 200 feet altitude and made successful bombing runs of several areas of Japanese soil, including Tokyo itself. The shock was
unbelievable. The Japanese had been told that such an attack was impossible on the homeland and now it had happened. The damage inflicted was minimal but the value was priceless.

The planes could not return to the carriers because they couldn’t land on its decks. They managed to lift off but were forced to continue on westward to hopefully reach the China coast where they could find a landing area. They ran into a severe storm before reaching the coast and got separated. Fifteen of the planes managed to reach China, but could not find landing areas. They were forced to bail out of their bombers and hope for the best. One plane managed to reach Vladivostock, Russia, where its crew was arrested after bailing out and placed in a Russian prison for over a year. Eight of the crewmen who bailed out over China were captured by Japanese soldiers and ultimately three of them were executed. All 16 bombers were lost and 67 airmen were taken in by Chinese civilians and ultimately returned to American hands. The Japanese launched a massive search for the airmen and in the following months as they searched in vain, an estimated 250,000 Chinese civilians were killed by the Japanese in retaliation.

On returning home Colonel Jimmy Doolittle expected to be court martialed for losing all 16 of his bombers but instead received the medal of Honor from a grateful nation and promoted to Brigadier General. The mission was successful for a number of reasons but that is where our real story starts. Now for the “rest of the story.”

Of the 80 Raiders who flew off of that carrier destined for history, 62 survived the attack and returned home. Hollywood made a movie, Thirty Seconds over Tokyo with Spencer Tracy and Van Johnson. It was a box office blockbuster. In 1946, the survivors held a reunion to commemorate the mission. Each April thereafter it has been held in a different city around the U.S. In 1959, the city of Tucson, Arizona, presented the Doolittle Raiders with
a set of 80 silver goblets, in respect and gratitude for their contributions. Each goblet was engraved with
the name of a “Raider.” Every year since, the wooden display case with the 80 goblets is transported to the reunion city. A ceremony is held and a goblet is turned over for each Raider who has passed away during the preceding year. Also in the case is a bottle of 1896 Hennessey Very Special Cognac. The year is not by accident. Jimmy Doolittle was born in 1896. There has always been a plan. When only two surviving members are still alive, the bottle of Cognac will be opened and the survivors will drink a toast in their silver cup to the memory of the Raiders.

In April of 2013 there were only five Raiders still alive, then in February Tom Griffin passed away at age 96. The story of his life came to notice and what a man he was. He bailed out of his plane over a mountainous region in China, spent some time with guerrilla fighters, became ill with malaria and almost died. After rescue and being hospitalized, he recovered and was sent to Europe to fly more combat missions. He was shot down, captured and spent 22 months in a German prison camp.

The Cincinnati Enquirer picked up his story and though it had nothing to do with his war missions, it symbolizes and epitomizes the depth of his sense of duty and devotion. The story reads, “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 every 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.”

Now only four out of the original 80 remain. Dick Cole (Doolittle’s co-pilot on the Tokyo raid), Robert Hite, Edward Saylor and David Thatcher. All are in their 90s. The surviving members decided to discontinue their reunions because of advancing age so they met on November 9, 2013 for the final time to open their Cognac and made the ultimate toast to comrades who had shared an adventure which exceeds fiction. Robert Hite couldn’t attend the final toast, but his spirit was present.

Retired educator Frank C. Newby is the author of 17 non-fiction books, available at or for your Kindle device.