On November 9, 2013, there occurred a gathering of four, a tribute to fallen heroes. These four are themselves heroes, and worthy of tribute. It was to be their last such gathering.
This story begins on April 18, 1942, when a flight of 16 Mitchell B25 medium bombers took off from the deck of the carrier USS Hornet. It was a retaliatory raid on Japan, planned and led by Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle of the U.S. Army Air Forces. It was payback for the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, seven months earlier. A demonstration that the Japanese home islands were not immune from attack.
Launching such large aircraft from the decks of a carrier had never been attempted, and there were no means of bringing them back. This was to be a one-way mission, into enemy occupied territory.
Fearing a breach in operational security, the mission was forced to launch 200 miles before the intended departure spot. The range now made fighter escort impossible, and left the bombers themselves with the slimmest margin of error.
Japanese Premier Hideki Tojo was inspecting military bases at the time of the raid. One B-25 came so close that he could see the pilot, though the American bomber never fired a shot.
After dropping their bombs, all but one aircraft was able to continue west into Japanese occupied China. That one landed in Vladivostok, where the pilot and crew were interned for a year by our Soviet “allies”.
A quarter of a million Chinese were murdered by Japanese soldiers, as they hunted for Doolittle’s raiders. Eight of them were captured, three were executed and one died in captivity, but most of the 80 who began the mission survived the war.
There was little serious damage done to the Japanese home islands, but the raid had a decisive effect. Japan withdrew its powerful aircraft carrier force to protect the home islands. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto attacked Midway, thinking it to have been the jump-off point for the raid. Described by military historian John Keegan as “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare”, the battle of Midway would be a major strategic defeat for Imperial Japan.
The Doolittle raiders have held a reunion every year, from the late 40’s, until 2013. In 1959, the city of Tucson presented them with 80 silver goblets, each engraved with the name of one of their number. They are on display at the National Museum of the Air Force, in Dayton Ohio.
With those goblets is a fine bottle of vintage Cognac, 1896, the year Jimmy Doolittle was born. There’s been a bargain among the Doolittle raid survivors that, one day, the last two of their number would open that bottle, and toast their comrades.
In 2013 they changed their bargain, just a bit. Jimmy Doolittle himself passed away in 1993. Twenty years later, 76 goblets had been turned over, each signifying a man who had passed on. The last four were Lieutenant Colonel Richard E. Cole, co-pilot of crew No. 1; Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Hite, co-pilot of crew No. 16; Lieutenant Colonel Edward J. Saylor, engineer-gunner of crew No. 15; and Staff Sergeant David J. Thatcher, engineer-gunner of crew No. 7. These four agreed that they would gather one last time. It would be they who would finally open that bottle.
Robert Hite, 93, was too frail to travel, so his son stood in for him. So it was that a 117 year-old bottle of cognac was cracked open on this date in 2013, and enjoyed in the company of heroes. If there is a more magnificent act of tribute, I cannot at this moment think of what it might be.
On April 18, 2015, Richard Cole and David Thatcher fulfilled their original bargain, as the last two surviving members of the Doolittle raid. Staff Sergeant Thatcher passed in June of last year, at the age of 94. As I write this, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Cole age 102, Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot, is the only man in the world who has earned the right to open that bottle.