Congressional Gold Medal adds to lore of Doolittle Tokyo Raiders

  • Apr 19, 2015 6:26am GMT
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Saturday, April 18, 2015, marked the 73rd anniversary of the now legendary secret bombing mission on Japan by 80 Army Air Corps volunteers. The leader of this mission was already a legendary aviator of the day, Jimmy Doolittle. Specially, intensely trained for weeks, they manned 16 highly modified B-25 Mitchell bombers, flying them off the deck of the USS Hornet to avenge the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor just months before. As important as the audacious raid was to boosting sagging American morale, their bold and totally unexpected attack shifted Japanese military strategy from what to that point had been 100% offensive action taken under the perception of invincibility. Among their targets on the Japanese homeland was the capital of Tokyo, and they would forever be known as Doolittle’s Tokyo Raiders.

Space here does not allow for the whole story of the successful Raid, which thankfully has been well documented over the 73 years since. But it is worth note that out of the eighty airmen taking part, three lost their lives in the loss of their aircraft. Seven were POWs. Three of those were executed and one died in captivity. Twelve more would die during WWII, ten of those being killed in action.

The fame and glory of this audacious Raid and it participants would grow over the decades, their annual reunion celebrations and tradition of the “Goblet Ceremony” only adding to Raider mythology. But time has achieved what the Axis could not. Today, only two of Raiders survive – Lt. Col. Richard E. Cole (99), of Dayton, Ohio, who was Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot on the first B-25 off the Hornet, and Staff Sergeant David J. Thatcher (93), of Bridger, Montana, the Engineer-Gunner on Crew #7.

Incredibly, it was not until last week, on April 15, 2015, that the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders received our nation’s highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal. After years of lobbying for this overdue recognition, a campaign vigorously led by the Raiders’ Association Sergeant-at-Arms, Brian “Bear” Anderson, the 113th Congress bestowed the medal in recognition of the 80 Raiders’ “outstanding heroism, valor, skill and service to the United States” during the April 1942 raid on Japan.

Gathered in the U.S. Capitol Visitor’s Center Emancipation Hall, leaders of the U.S. House and Senate presented the medal to Cole and Thatcher, who gratefully accepted on behalf of all Raiders. Typically, such Gold Medals are then directed to the Smithsonian for safekeeping and display (only 158 Congressional Gold Medals have been presented since the first was received by George Washington). However, given the National Museum of the United States Air Force is home to a diorama of the Raid that includes a B-25 and, since 2005, the Raiders’ 80 engraved goblets, the Raiders deemed it appropriate that the legislative wording stipulated the medal’s home would be the museum.

Thus, on April 18, 2015, before an audience of over 1,000 military leaders, government officials, Raiders’ family members, media, and fans of the Raiders from across the U.S., Museum Director Lt. Gen. Jack Hudson, USAF (Ret), was formally presented the Medal by Cole and Thatcher on a stage in the museum’s Modern Flight Gallery. At a reception held afterward throughout the WWII Gallery, the two surviving Raiders’ added the Medal for permanent public display in the Tokyo Raid exhibit. Its two-sided design is showcased mere feet from the Goblets, the replica B-25 Mitchell as it looked on the decking of the Hornet, and other unique Raider artifacts.