On the eve of another Fourth of July, a day filled with red, white and blue and amidst copious amounts of potato salad, baked beans, burgers and ‘dogs, there will also be a generous helping of patriotism for all of us.
And, while we really aren’t even guaranteed tomorrow, many of us will have more Independence Days to celebrate. However, for men of a certain age, those of whom Tom Brokaw wrote so eloquently in his book “The Greatest Generation,” their Independence Days are down to a precious few.
The best estimates are that 1,100 World War II veterans die each day, and this past spring that became dramatically clear to me after one of my readers, Herb Bushong, passed along some information about a very small and very special group of men, men to whom all Americans owe a debt of gratitude.
In April, Fort Walton Beach, Fla., was the site of the 71st and last reunion for the surviving members of the famed Doolittle Raiders, the intrepid airmen who bombed Japanese targets in April 1942 in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was in Fort Walton Beach that the original 80 volunteers trained for a military mission of incredible magnitude and equally incredible peril.
The original 80 risked everything to stand guard over the very freedom that is the cornerstone of tomorrow’s holiday. Because of the absence of allied airfields near enough to Japan for the Raiders, commanded by Lt. Col. James Doolittle, to launch their retaliatory mission, the B-25s were modified to allow them to take off from the deck of a carrier, something extremely rare at that time. With bombers as heavy as these, however, returning and landing back on the carrier was not an option.
As for an alternate plan, the idea was to try to make it to China for safe landing after the mission, which was anything but a certainty before the planes would run out of fuel.
Every one of the 80 knew the risks, but with Doolittle himself flying the lead plane, all 16 planes, each with a five-man crew, took off. The Raiders carried out their mission and headed west for China. While almost all the planes made it to China, one was forced to land in Russia.
One man died on bail-out. Two more drowned in a crash landing off the coast of China. Of the eight men captured by the Japanese, three more died by firing squad, while another died of malnutrition in a prisoner of war prison. Four more POWs survived 40 months in prison, much of it in solitary confinement.
As for all who survived the mission, 13 would later be killed in action during World War II. So, it was in 1946 that the surviving 62 Raiders held their first reunion in April as a means to commemorate their mission and remember those brother Raiders who did not survive the war.
As the years passed, the reunions were held in various cities. In 1959, city officials of Tucson, Ariz., as a means to pay respect and extend gratitude, gave the Doolittle Raiders a set of 80 silver goblets, each inscribed with the name of a Raider.
Each year the wooden carrying case with the goblets was brought to the reunion city, and each time a Raider died, at the next reunion, his goblet was turned upside down in the case.
That wooden case also contains a bottle of Hennessy Very Special cognac. The symbolic significance of the 1896 cognac is that is the year James Doolittle was born.
The plan has always been when just two Raiders remained, the bottle would finally be opened and a toast drunk to all of their departed brothers.
At the start of this year, there were five remaining, but February saw the passing of Tom Griffin, who was forced to bail out over a mountainous region in China, survived malaria, was later shot down during the war and spent 22 months in a German POW camp.
Now, but four remain — Robert Hite, Edward Saylor, Dick Cole (Doolittle’s co-pilot) and David Thatcher — all of whom are in their 90s.
Before this past April’s reunion, the four have decided the 71st will be the last, but it will not be the last time they will see one another.
One more time, later this year, at an informal gathering and in total privacy, far from any reporters who would somehow taint the moment by turning it into a news event, the four will open the bottle and have their toast. The celerity with which the years have passed was the deciding factor in deviating from the original plan.
And, that toast to the 76 now gone will, of course, come with more than a single tear from each, as Robert, Edward, Dick and David will remember their youth and that time when they volunteered for a mission where they had everything to lose and but one thing to gain, the knowledge that the freedom we celebrate with sparklers and fireworks tomorrow will forever remain intact.