November 24, 2014
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Sipping cognac signals end of a generation
Herb Weiss

On Nov. 11, there were a lot fewer World War II veterans attending the ceremonies honoring them. With a median age of 92, many of these members of “The Greatest Generation” are becoming frail, their numbers dwindling as the years go by. 

According to the Veterans Administration, World War II veterans are dying at a rate of 600 a day. This means there are only about 1.2 million veterans remaining of the 16 million who served in that war. By 2036, the National World War II Museum predicts there will be no living veterans of the war from 1939 to 1945 to recount their personal experiences. When this happens, their stories will only be told in books and documentaries. 

“The G.I. Generation” grew up in the Great Depression and then went on to fight World War II. Tom Brokaw’s 1998 bestseller, “The Greatest Generation,” put this generation, born between 1901 to 1924, firmly in the public’s mind. Brokaw, a television journalist and author best known as the anchor of the “NBC Nightly News,” now serves as a special correspondent for NBC News and other news outlets, and claimed that this was “the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” He asserted that these men and women fought, not for fame and recognition, but because it was just the “right thing to do.” 

A Gathering to Remember

As with others of the G.I Generation, old age and infirmity took its toll on the 80 members of the famed Doolittle Raiders. On Nov. 9, three of the survivors gathered once more on Veterans Day weekend to honor their 76 fallen comrades-in-arms and made a final toast to them. While not related by blood, these surviving members (plus one not attending) had history that bound them tightly together.

At this invitation-only ceremony at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, three members of the famed Doolittle Raiders who bombed Tokyo in 1942 got together for one more reunion. Lt. Col. Richard Cole, 98; Lt. Col. Edward J. Saylor, 93; Staff Sgt. David J. Thatcher, 92; came from as far away as Texas, Montana and Washington State, to honor their friends and crew members. Health issues kept Lt. Col. Robert L. Hite, a native of Ohio, from attending. Hite watched the ceremony with his family members from Nashville, Tenn. Wearing the traditional dress for Doolittle reunions, a blue blazer, gray pants and a Raider tie, Hite gave his personal silver goblet salute to his fallen brothers a few days earlier. 

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo

Seventy-one years ago, 16 Army Air Force B-25 Mitchell medium bombers, carrying 80 volunteers, took off from the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet, to bomb industrial and military sites in Tokyo and four other cities in Japan. This was America’s first air raid on Japan, 133 days after Pearl Harbor. The Doolittle Raiders bailed out or crash-landed their planes in China. Over a quarter-million Chinese men, women and children were killed for aiding the Raiders. Although the air attack was in retaliation for the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, this top-secret mission, led by Lt. Col. James Doolittle, biggest benefit was boosting the morale of the American public.

The surprise attack on the Japanese homeland caused Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the raid on Pearl Harbor, to move up his battle plans by eight months to attack Midway Island. American code breakers got the date and location of the planned attack and allowed the U.S. Navy to move three carriers – U.S.S Hornet, U.S.S. Enterprise and the U.S.S. Yorktown – to ambush Yamamoto, ultimately sinking four Japanese carriers and destroying 350 airplanes.

Later on, the Tokyo raid was credited with turning the war around in the Pacific because it provoked the devastating defeat of the Japanese at Midway in June 1942. The Japanese military machine could not replace those carriers or the trained pilots and mechanics lost in the naval battle.  

The Final Toast

According to Tom Casey, business manager for the Doolittle Raiders, an estimated 10,000 spectators, many young children and aging veterans, lined the streets on the military base waving American flags, waiting to meet the three Lincoln sedans carrying Raiders to the National Museum of the Air Force near Dayton, Ohio.

After an afternoon memorial service, a wreath was laid by the Doolittle Raiders monument outside the museum as five B-25 bombers flew low overhead in the famous “missing man formation” as a tribute. The Raiders made their last toast to the comrades who died in or since their mission, says Casey.

The original plan called for the last two Raiders standing to break open the bottle of cognac, toasting each other and their departed members to signify the end of the Raiders’ mission. Two major changes were made last October at a meeting in Washington, D.C. by the four surviving Raiders. Their first decision was to schedule their last public reunion in April at Fort Walton Beach in Florida, the home of Eglin Air Force Base, where the Raiders trained for the mission.

“Travel was getting more difficult, so the second decision was made to not wait until there were only two standing members as initially planned,” Casey recounted, stressing that it was important to bring the remaining Raiders together while they were physically able to officially close the mission. Unfortunately, Major Thomas C. Griffin passed away only weeks later. With the urging of General Hudson, director of the Air Force Museum in Dayton, they agreed the last toast would be scheduled for Veterans Day.

A historian read the names of all 80 Doolittle Raiders at the ceremony, with the three surviving veterans calling out, “Here,” when their names were called. Among the many speakers, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh told over 600 attendees, “As far as I’m concerned, this is the greatest professional honor I’ve ever had; to speak here, with this crowd, at this event.”

Welsh reported that first book he read as a youngster was “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo.”

“It was given to me by my father, also a World War II vet, with the words that I should read it closely because this is what America is all about. I’ve never forgotten those words,” he said.

“The Doolittle Raiders have been celebrated in books and in journals; in magazines; in various papers. They’ve had buildings named after them; had streets named after them. People play them in movies,” said Welsh, summarizing the Raiders’ place in our national history.

“They [the survivors] hate to hear this, but Jimmy Doolittle and his Raiders are truly lasting American heroes, but they are also Air Force heroes. They pioneered the concept of global strikes; the idea that no target on earth is safe from American air power.”

Concluding the emotional ceremony, Lt. Col. Cole, representing the survivors, opened the bottle of 1896 cognac and gave his final toast.

[The cognac was presented to Doolittle by Hennessy Cognac on his 60th birthday in 1956; the first time the bottle was taken out and shown to the public.]

“Gentlemen, I propose a toast,” Cole told the remaining Doolittle Raiders. “To the gentlemen we lost on the mission and those who have passed away since. Thank you very much and may they rest in peace.”

He sipped the cognac from an engraved silver goblet. The 80 silver goblets at the ceremony were presented to the Raiders in 1959 by the city of Tucson, Ariz. The Raiders’ names were engraved twice; the second upside-down. During the ceremony, white-gloved cadets presented the personal goblets to the three survivors while the 117-year-old cognac was poured. The goblets of the deceased were turned upside-down.

The four remaining members of the Doolittle Raiders will continue sharing their experiences and, when the last cup is turned upside down, it will be only history books and documentaries that will give us a small glimpse of what it took to personally answer the call to duty and to do that job well.

Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.


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