As another Veterans Day passes, I can’t help but to think back to the time I met seven of the bravest men in America – ever. While traveling on business to San Antonio in 2007, the hotel in which I stayed just happened to be hosting the 65th reunion of the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders. I had previously mentioned the impromptu rendezvous in a another post, but I feel like these patriots deserve their own recognition.
That day, I entered the hotel lobby and noticed a sea of military personnel and a museum-like display showcasing the Raiders. I quickly learned they were hosting a few dignitaries and media outlets later that evening. Hmmm. Of course, I had to figure out a way to gain access to this event.
I called my colleague and we planned our elaborate strategy. The plan we chose? Walk in like we belonged! Sure enough, it worked. Somehow, our bravery pales in comparison to what these eighty men volunteered to do in April 1942.
If you’re not familiar with the Doolittle Raiders, you should be. It’s an incredible story of determination, courage, bravery and love of country. Their mission lifted the spirits and morale of the American people – and troops – and positioned us to take back the dominate leadership position in the world.
The mission consisted of sixteen B-25 medium range bomber planes, each with a five-man crew. The plan was to strike back at the Japanese, who had just bombed Pearl Harbor five months earlier. The surprise attack was launched from aircraft carriers in the Pacific Ocean with the aim of hitting strategic targets throughout Japan – demonstrating that, unlike what the Japanese leaders told their people, they too were vulnerable to air attack.
It took a lot of ingenuity to modify the bombers to be able to take off from aircraft carriers – but they figured it out. That story alone is worth understanding. For example, they needed to limit the weight of the plane so it could take off the carrier, but they needed enough fuel for the mission and enough weapons to make a statement. And considering they needed to take off far enough out to sea so they wouldn’t be spotted, they needed plenty of fuel.
Then, since landing a B-25 on a carrier was deemed impossible, they would have to try to land in China. With no other air or ground support, try was the operative word. China was an ally, but still, this was essentially a suicide mission.
“Son, we weren’t thinking, we were just doing our job”. – Lt. Dick Cole
All was going according to plan – until they were spotted by a Japanese patrol boat further out to sea than they had planned, the fuel calculations just got thrown overboard. They needed to make a decision to either launch from further out and risk not having enough fuel to make it to safety or continue on until their designated launch point, risking attack by Japanese fighter planes.
Since they had virtually no air support from fighter planes – the decision was made to launch earlier – but landing was now at greater risk.
In the end, all sixteen planes completed the mission – with fifteen landing in China and one in Russia. All but three of the eighty men survived the “landings” but eight were taken hostage, four of which later died in captivity – three by execution and one by disease.
Many were injured in the crash landings and some were interred by the Russians and held captive for over a year. In spite of all of that, many returned to service. Incredible.
On that day in 2007, only fourteen were still alive, of which, seven were in attendance. Others were represented by friends and family. I made my way around the room and shook the hand of all seven and thanked them for their service and dedication. Each and every one blew it off like it was nothing. I asked one, Lt. Dick Cole, the co-pilot to Doolittle, what he was thinking when he signed up for the mission. His response, “Son, we weren’t thinking, we were just doing our job”.
On this Veteran’s Day weekend, do yourself a favor, thank a veteran and watch the 1944 movie, “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” or the end of the more recent “Pearl Harbor” for a more fictionalize version of the events.
In 2013, three of the remaining four, Edward Saylor, David Thatcher and Dick Cole held their final reunion in Dayton, Ohio. The fourth, Robert Hite missed due to health reasons. During that celebration, they decided to open the bottle of 1896 Cognac that was handed down by Doolittle with an agreement that the “last man standing” open the bottle and toast the fallen before him.
Today, just one lone survivor remains. Lt Cole is now over 100 years. Here he is below opening the bottle of cognac at the 2013 reunion.
I believe it was their unselfish act that set the tone for us going into World War II and the attack served as the turning point in the War.
And while these heroes are celebrated to this day, there are tens of thousands of other military men and women – and their families – that sacrifice every day so that I can sit here and post my silly blog. Thank you!