68th Doolittle Raiders Reunion
The Doolittle Tokyo Raiders Association Reunion was held Friday through Saturday, April 16-18, at the U.S. Air Force Museum abeam Wright Patterson AFB, Dayton, Ohio. There are eight surviving crew members of the 80 who flew on the mission and four attended the reunion, including 88-year-old MSgt. David Thatcher (engineer/gunner - aircraft #7); 90-year-old Lt. Col. Robert Hite (co-pilot of aircraft #16 - the last one off the USS Hornet); 92-year-old Maj. Thomas Griffin (navigator and mission planner - aircraft #9); and 94-year-old Lt. Col. Richard Cole (co-pilot of aircraft #1 - Jimmy Doolittle’s plane).
All four men had numerous public autograph sessions, with hundreds of people in a line snaking through the museum, waiting for every two-hour session. We attended a 45-minute media conference to ask questions and hear their stories on Friday afternoon.
A few items of note: one member said it was common to for B-25 pilots to be deaf in their left ear because their engines were notoriously loud. Lt. Col. Hite, co-pilot on #16, said he had no doubt he’d make it off the Hornet OK because the other 15 had already done it. Co-pilot in #1, Lt. Col. Cole, said he wasn’t afraid being first to takeoff because he was alongside the best pilot in the group, then-Maj. Doolittle!
Navigator Maj Griffin noted that he and the other mission planners traveled to Washington, D.C., to plot their attack. They had actually made up 20 sets of flight plans and charts, although only 16 aircraft flew the mission. Great stuff, hearing it from the men that actually flew the operation.
Friday night, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley spoke at the big, formal dinner for them at the museum and was present Saturday morning at the static display of B-25s, alongside the Tokyo Raiders. What we didn’t get to see was the private ceremony where the surviving members toast their departed comrades with the legendary set of 80 engraved silver goblets - face down for those deceased.
The other half of the weekend’s festivities centered around the gathering of 17 B-25s, the largest gathering of the North American-built bombers since the making of the film Catch-22 (1970) more than four decades ago. Staging out of Grimes Field in nearby Urbana, Ohio, the planes thundered onto the museum grounds Saturday morning, landing on a private runway behind it. They were presented on static display Saturday for the public, and departed Sunday around noon to perform a 17-ship fly past to open a commemorative ceremony for the Doolittle Raiders at the Museum.
The gathering included one of each version: B-25A, B-25D, B-25H, PBJ (Navy/Marine version), plus 13 B-25Js. The fly past on Sunday was spread out in three columns filling the sky for some 30 seconds. The rumble of 34 Wright Cyclone engines overhead was chilling and thrilling at the same time. I’d hate to have been underneath the bombers as they delivered their payloads in wartime, but then I marveled at the resourcefulness and dedication it took to put these aircraft all overhead at once for the reunion.
We were honored to be able to watch and listen to the men, who volunteered for their mission. At the time, I don’t think they knew of the raid’s importance. Only historians have brought out the two main impacts of the 16-ship raid - that America’s morale soared, for it was a much-needed early victory in the war, and Japan was immediately put on the defensive because they now needed to protect their homeland, slowing down their offensive plans that, up until that point, had resulted in a string of victories.
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