A milestone historical event took place on November 9, 2013, at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. Rather than wait until there were only two Doolittle Tokyo Raiders left to turn over their own goblets as originally planned, the four surviving members decided to complete their mission publicly and make a final toast to their deceased comrades together. They were Lt. Col. Richard E. “Dick” Cole, 98; Lt. Col. Edward J. Saylor, 94; and Staff Sgt. David J. Thatcher, 92. The fourth, Lt. Col. Robert L. Hite, 93, was unable to attend, but viewed the ceremony via Internet at his home in Nashville, Tenn. Outstanding cadets from the Air Force Academy handled the goblets, and the final scene was widely televised and reported.
As the oldest of the four survivors, Dick Cole opened a bottle of cognac, dated 1896, the year of their leader’s birth, which had been stored away for this final occasion. “Gentlemen, I propose a toast to those we lost on the mission and those who have passed away since,” said Cole. “Thank you very much and may they rest in peace.” Saylor and Thatcher sipped from their own goblets as the audience gave them all a standing ovation.
The attendees, many of them relatives of the original 80 mission members, rose again in tribute to their own family Raiders as I read the entire roster of names. Preceding the toast, Acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning and Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark A. Welsh III spoke of the Raiders’ courage and the significance of their mission to Air Force history. Secretary Fanning and General Welsh presented the surviving Raiders with a silver eagle statuette in appreciation of their service.
In the afternoon prior to the evening toast ceremony, a large crowd had gathered at the museum’s Memorial Park in front of the Doolittle Raid monument, which lists all the Raiders. A wreath was laid, a lone B-25 flew overhead and Cole gave a talk summing up the Raiders’ sentiments: “Once again we meet at this Memorial Park to reflect on the mission we took part in seven decades ago. Although we designed this commemorative symbol of the plane we flew, it was not intended as a tribute to ourselves. We wanted to list for posterity the names of everyone who voluntarily participated and followed a leader who personified the finest human qualities and set a standard of American military leadership that was unprecedented. It is an acknowledgment of the admiration, trust and respect we had for him and also a reminder of the friendship we had with those who have gone before us. We all shared the same risk but had no realization of the positive effect that we had on the morale of Americans at a time of great national peril. We are grateful we had the opportunity to serve and are mindful that our nation benefited from our service.”
Update: On November 19, the U.S. Senate passed bill S. 381, intended to recognize members of the Doolittle Raiders with the Congressional Gold Medal. In early December, 298 members of the House of Representatives had signed onto H.R. 1209 as co-sponsors, increasing the likelihood that the recognition will be approved sometime in 2014. You can track the bill and contact your congressman at govtrack.us/congress/bills/113/hr1209.