DAYTON, Ohio - The surviving Doolittle Raiders, all in their 90s, considered their place in history for their daring World War II attack on Japan amid thousands of cheering fans, as they prepared for a final ceremonial toast Saturday to their fallen comrades.
A B-25 bomber flyover helped cap an afternoon memorial tribute in which a wreath was placed at the Doolittle Raider monument outside the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton. Museum officials estimated some 5,000 people turned out for Veterans Day weekend events honoring the 1942 mission credited with rallying American morale and throwing the Japanese off balance.
Acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning said America was at a low point, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and other Axis successes, before "these 80 men who showed the nation that we were nowhere near defeat." He noted that all volunteered for a mission with high risks throughout, from the launch of B-25 bombers from a carrier at sea, the attack on Tokyo, and lack of fuel to reach safe bases.
Only four of the 80 are still alive. The Raiders said, at the time, they didn't realize their mission would be considered an important event in turning the war's tide. It inflicted little major damage physically, but changed Japanese strategy while firing up Americans.
"It was what you do ... over time, we've been told what effect our raid had on the war and the morale of the people," Lt. Col. Edward Saylor, 93, said in an interview.
The Brusset, Mont. native, who now lives in Puyallup, Wash., said he was one of the lucky ones.
"There were a whole bunch of guys in World War II; a lot of people didn't come back," he said.
Staff Sgt. David Thatcher, 92, of Missoula, Mont., said during the war, the raid seemed like "one of many bombing missions." The most harrowing part for him was the crash-landing of his plane, depicted in the movie "Thirty Seconds over Tokyo."
Three crew members died as Raiders bailed out or crash-landed their planes in China, but most were helped to safety by Chinese villagers and soldiers.
Three of the four surviving Raiders were greeted by flag-waving well-wishers ranging from small children to fellow war veterans. The fourth couldn't travel because of health problems.
Twelve-year-old Joseph John Castellano's grandparents brought him from their Dayton home for Saturday's events.
"This was Tokyo. The odds of their survival were 1 in a million," the boy said. "I just felt like I owe them a few short hours of the thousands of hours I will be on Earth."
More than 600 people, including Raiders widows and children, descendants of Chinese villagers who helped them, and Pearl Harbor survivors, were expected for the invitation-only ceremony Saturday evening.
After Thomas Griffin of Cincinnati died in February at age 96, the survivors decided at the 71st anniversary reunion in April in Fort Walton, Beach, Fla., that it would be their last and that they would gather this autumn for one last toast together instead of waiting, as had been the original plan, for the last two survivors to make the toast.
"We didn't want to get a city all excited and plan and get everything set up for a reunion, and end up with no people because of our age," explained Lt. Col. Richard Cole, the oldest survivor at 98. The Dayton native, who was Doolittle's co-pilot, lives in Comfort, Texas.
Lt. Col. Robert Hite, 93, couldn't come. Son Wallace Hite said his father, wearing a Raiders blazer and other traditional garb for their reunions, made his own salute to the fallen with a silver goblet of wine at home in Nashville, Tenn., earlier in the week.
Hite is the last survivor of eight Raiders who were captured by Japanese soldiers. Three were executed; another died in captivity.
The 80 silver goblets in the ceremony were presented to the Raiders in 1959 by the city of Tucson, Ariz. The Raiders' names are engraved twice, the second upside-down. During the ceremony, white-gloved cadets pour cognac into the participants' goblets. Those of the deceased are turned upside-down.
The cognac is from 1896, the year Doolittle was born.