One by one, 14 of the Doolittle Raiders, 3 in wheelchairs and several slightly stooped by age and the solemnity of the occasion, approach a wooden case holding 80 silver goblets. Each removes a cup engraved with his name and accepts a splash of brandy.
The old warriors form a loose semi-circle. Maj. Gen. David M. Jones, 88, begins: "Gentlemen, your attention. I will now call the names of our departed." As the former pilot names each colleague who either fell in battle or has died since the end of World War II, he is answered with an emphatic "Here" from a surviving crew member, an acknowledgment that while a man’s body may be gone, his spirit lives on. In a moment of silence to honor two men who died since the group last met a year ago, two goblets are turned upside down.
Jones reads the last name, then lifts his chalice: "Gentlemen, to our good friends who have gone."
This simple yet poignant annual ceremony, never before seen by the public, took place April 18 in Columbia, South Carolina, where the famous squadron known as the Doolittle Raiders was first mustered. Exactly 60 years earlier, under the legendary leadership of then-Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, the Raiders performed one of the most daring military actions ever carried out. Just as the United States seemed on the verge of military collapse in the Pacific, these brave men launched a seemingly suicidal bombing run on a supremely confident Japan.
Memorialized in the classic book and subsequent film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo—as well as last year’s breathless Hollywood romance, Pearl Harbor—the mission has been remembered at Raider reunions held nearly every year since 1947. This year’s reunion in Columbia was one of the largest and most elaborate appreciations; it was certainly among the most emotional. Over five days, 14 of the surviving 23 Raiders (2 more have died since April) were feted with sold-out banquets, the reading of an impassioned note from President Bush, speeches by radio host Oliver North and retired astronaut Brig. Gen. Charles Duke, a parade down Main Street and an air show featuring meticulously maintained B-25 bombers similar to the 16 flown by the Raiders. History buffs of all ages asked the men to autograph posters, vintage photographs, model planes, baseballs and even the belly of one of the B-25s.
"They had their first union here, so we felt that they should have one of their last reunions here," said Brig. Gen. Carey Woodson Randall, chairman of the Columbia-based Celebrate Freedom Foundation, which hosted the event. "Bombing Japan just a few months after Pearl Harbor was a total shock. No one thought it could be done."
To understand the extraordinary derring-do of the Raiders, one needs to remember the circumstances of the time. The Japanese had just upended U.S. attempts to stay out of World War II with their devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. And Allied troops were being punished in the Philippines. An angry President Franklin D. Roosevelt demanded that his military brass design a strategy to strike back at the Japanese and show that the United States wasn’t about to roll over. The improbable solution: the Doolittle Raid.
Today it’s almost routine that bombers take off from fortress-like carriers, refuel in midair and travel thousands of miles to pummel enemies with virtual impunity. But consider what these men faced: only two B-25s—medium-range, twin-engine bombers—had ever taken off from the deck of an aircraft carrier (and those on a test flight in friendly waters). The bulkiness of these aircraft made landing on a ship impossible, which meant that they would have to find a safe landing strip after they hit their targets. Plus, not one of the 16 pilots (each with a crew of four) had flown any kind of plane off a ship at sea.
Despite these obstacles, a small carrier task force under the command of Adm. William Frederick "Bull" Halsey, Jr., assembled at a top secret location in the Pacific off Hawaii in April 1942. Their orders were to bring the carrier USS Hornet and the Raiders to within 450 miles of Tokyo, a distance that the planes could cover and still have enough fuel to fly deep into China, beyond the grasp of the Japanese. Bad luck, however, struck even before a single plane took off. Six hundred fifty miles off Tokyo, the ships stumbled upon a Japanese picketboat, which they promptly blew out of the water. Halsey and Doolittle, assuming that the enemy crew had alerted mainland Japan of an impending attack, agreed that the Raiders had to take off immediately; otherwise, the B-25s would have to be dumped overboard so that the Hornet could scramble its own fighters.
Doolittle did not hesitate, ordering his crews to start their engines. Two hundred miles short of their planned takeoff point, each Raider understood that even with the extra fuel they had hurriedly loaded on board, they might have to ditch their airplanes into the ocean or parachute into Japanese-held territory. To make matters worse, an unexpected squall sent waves arcing over the carrier’s deck.