Raiders' Final Toast a Fitting Focus on Veterans Day
I have long and colorful history with the Doolittle Raiders, both personally and professionally, especially if you count that my Dad was a B-25 pilot during WWII (though his service came a couple years after 1942). I attended my first Raider Reunion in 1981 (where I met “The Man,” General Doolittle), and another five reunions over the years that followed. So it was bittersweet, to say the least, that I was able to experience the day-long festivities at the Air Force Museum that were all part of the Raiders’ “Final Toast” on Saturday, November 9th, in Dayton.
For those unaware of the details of the Raid and the significance of the Raiders' annual reunions, I apologize for not providing them here today. They are well documented elsewhere, thankfully, though probably not in public school curricula. Key to this final toast is that there were 80 men - each a volunteer - on the top secret, daring mission that saw 16 fuel- and bomb-laden B-25s lift off from the USS Hornet on April 16, 1942. They struck the first offensive blow against mainland Imperial Japan as America began a long, hard fight back after the debacle of Pearl Harbor and other stunning setbacks hurling the U.S. headlong into WWII.
Of those 80 brave airmen, only 4 survive today; Richard "Dick" Cole (98), Robert Hite (93), Edward Saylor (93), and David Thatcher (92). There are 80 sterling silver name-engraved goblets used annually on the anniversary of the raid for survivors to privately toast those of their lot that have passed in the previous year. Housed in a velvet lined case, inverted goblets indicate a Raider passed. (These storied goblets are displayed at the National Museum of the USAF in perpetuity)
Originally this anniversary reunion tradition was to culminate with the last two surviving Raiders making a final toast to their 78 previously departed comrades. In 1956, the year of Jimmy Doolittle's 60th birthday, a representative of Hennessy gave him a one-of-a-kind bottle of cognac, the vintage 1896, the year of Doolittle's birth. Doolittle suggested it remain unopened and to be consumed by the final two Raiders standing. Due to Father Time now achieving what the Japanese couldn't, it was deemed appropriate that this final toast be held now, lest we lose these heroes early. In fact, Hite was unable to travel and thus the solemn honor was left to the trio of Cole, Saylor and Thatcher.
In appreciation of its historic significance, the Raiders' agreed to allow the USAF to make the Final Toast a public event, albeit limited to 1,200 specially invited guests and media representatives. Since word of my Final Toast attendance spread, I’ve been inundated with requests for images of the event, sharing some this morning with NPR and other outlets. ATA is the logical place to post my personal favorite images before commencing on written coverage that will appear in Flight Journal and perhaps other outlets soon. It quite honestly will take me a while to fully digest the import and emotion of the day, and process what it truly means for us aviation history geeks. I know that there are readers of this post that understand exactly what I mean.