Sipping Cognac Signals an End of a Generation

Published in Pawtucket Times, November 15, 2013

On November 11, fewer aging World War II veterans attended ceremonies held throughout the country honoring them. With their medium age pegged at 92 years, many of these individuals known as the “Greatest Generation), are quickly becoming frail, their numbers dwindling as the years go by.

According to the Veteran’s Administration, our elder Word War II veterans are dying at a rate of just over 600 a day. This means there are approximately only 1.2 million veterans remaining out of the 16 million who served our nation in that war. By 2036, The National World War II Museum predicts there will be no living veterans of this global war that took place from 1939 to 1945, to recount their own personal experiences. When this happens there stories would only be told in some history books or by television documentaries.

The G.I. Generation, (coined the “The Greatest Generation” by nationally acclaimed journalist Tom Brokaw), grew in the Great Depression, and went on to fight World War II. Brokaw’s 1998 best seller, The Greatest Generation, put this generation, born between 1901 to 1924, firmly on the public’s radar screen.

Brokaw, a well-know American television journalist and author best known as the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, who now serves as a Special Correspondent for NBC News and works on documentaries for other news outlets, claims that this was “the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” He asserted that these men and women fought not for fame and recognition, but because it was just the “right thing to do.”

A Gathering to Remember

As with others of G.I Generation, old age and infirmity took its toll on the 80 members of the famed Doolittle Raiders. On Nov. 9, three of the remaining survivors gathered once more on Veterans Day weekend to honor their 76 fallen comrades-in-arms and made a final toast to them. While not related by blood, these surviving members (plus one not attending) had history that bound them tightly together.

At this invitation-only ceremony, at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, the surviving three members of the famed Doolittle Raiders, Lt. Col. Richard Cole, 98, Lt. Col. Edward J. Saylor, 93, Staff Sgt. David J. Thatcher, 92, coming as far away as Texas, Montana and Washington State, came to honor their 76 deceased bomber crew members.

Health issues would keep Lt. Col. Robert L. Hite, a native of Ohio, from attending the ceremony. Hite watched the ceremony with his family members from Nashville, Tenn. Wearing the traditional dress for reunions, a blue blazer and gray pants and a Raider tie, Hite gave his own personal salute to his fallen brothers with a silver goblet a few days earlier

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo

Over seventy-one-years ago, sixteen U.S. Army Air Force B-25 Mitchell medium bombers, carrying 80 army air force volunteer, took off from the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet, to bomb industrial and military site in Tokyo and four major cities in Japan. This was America’s first air raid on the Empire of Japan that took place 133 days after Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle Raiders bailed out or crash-landed their planes (that ran out of fuel) in China, and most were led to safety by Chinese villagers and soldiers. According to the Doolittle Raiders organization, over a quarter million Chinese men, women and children were killed by the Japanese for aiding the Raiders to escape.

Although the “psychological” air attack was in retaliation for the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, this top-secret mission, led by Lt. Col. James Doolittle, had an added benefit of boosting the sagging morale of the American public.

Meanwhile, due to the surprise attack on the Japanese homeland, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the raid on Pearl Harbor, decided to save face by moving up his battle plans by eight months to attack Midway Island. American code breakers were able to give date and location of this planned attack allowing the U.S. Navy to move three carriers — U.S.S Hornet, U.S.S. Enterprise, and the U.S.S. Yorktown — to ambush Yamamoto’s naval force, ultimately sinking four Japanese carriers, destroying 350 airplanes.

Later on, the Tokyo raid was credited in turning the war around in the Pacific because of the devastating defeat of the Japanese at the Battle of Midway in June 1942… The Japanese military machine could not replace those carriers nor could it replace the trained pilots and mechanics lost in the naval battle.

The Final Toast

According to Tom Casey, Business Manager for the Doolittle Raiders, on Nov. 9, an estimated ten thousand spectators, many young children, and aging veterans, lined the streets on the military base waving American flags, waiting to meet the three Lincoln sedans carrying the three Raiders who came to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton, Ohio.

After an afternoon memorial service with speeches and taps, a wreath was laid by the Doolittle Raider monument outside the museum as five B-25 bombers flew low over head in the famous missing man formation as a tribute. The Raiders made their last toast that evening to comrades who died in the air attack or since their mission, says Casey.

The original plan for the last toast called for the last two Raiders standing to break open the bottle of cognac, toasting each other and their departed members, stated Casey, who noted that this signify the end of the Doolittle Raider’s mission.

However, Casey remembers the two major changes were made last October at meeting in Washington, D.C. by the four surviving Raiders. Their first decision was to schedule their last public reunion in April 2013 at Fort Walton Beach Florida, the home of Eglin Air Force Base where the Raiders trained for their mission.

“They were also getting older, and travel was getting more difficult, so the second decision was made to not wait until there were only two standing members as initially planned, Casey recounts, stressing that it was important to bring together the five remaining Raiders together while they were physically able to meet to officially close their mission. Unfortunately, Major Thomas C. Griffin passed away weeks later. With the urging of General Hudson, Director of the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, with the agreement of the surviving members the last toast would be scheduled for November 2013 on Veterans Day.

At the evening ceremony, before attending family members of their deceased crew members, air force leadership, and other invitees, a historian read the names of all 80 Doolittle raiders, with the three surviving veterans calling out “here.”

Among the many speakers, Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark A. Welsh told over 600 attendees, “As far as I’m concerned, this is the greatest professional honor I’ve ever had to speak here with this crowd at this event.”

Welsh admitted that first book he read as a youngster was Thirty Seconds over Tokyo. “It was given to me by my father, also a World War II vet, with the words that I should read it closely because this is this what America is all about. I’ve never forgotten those words,” he said.

“The Doolittle raiders have been celebrated in book and in journals … in magazines … in various papers. They’ve had buildings named after them … had streets named after them. People play them in movies,” Welsh added.

“They [the survivors] hate to hear this, but Jimmy Doolittle and his Raiders are truly lasting American heroes, but they are also Air Force heroes. They pioneered the concept of global strike … the idea that no target on earth is safe from American air power, states Welsh.

Concluding the emotional ceremony, Cole, representing his fellow Doolittle Raider survivors, opened the 1896 Cognac (denoting Doolittle’s birth year) and gave his final toast.

Casey notes that this bottle was presented to General Doolittle on his sixtieth birthday by a representative of the Hennessy Cognac Company. “That evening was the first time ever the bottle was taken out of its original box and shown to the public and displayed,” he said.

“Gentlemen, I propose a toast,” Cole told the remaining Doolittle Raiders. “To the gentlemen we lost on the mission and those who have passed away since. Thank you very much and may they rest in peace,” then he sipped the cognac from an engraved silver goblet.

The 80 silver goblets in the ceremony were presented to the Raiders in 1959 by the city of Tucson, Ariz. The Raiders’ names were engraved twice, the second upside-down. During the ceremony, white-gloved cadets presented the personal goblets to the three survivors, while their long-time manager poured the 117 year old cognac into the into the participants’ goblets. Those of the deceased were turned upside-down.

The four remaining members of the Doolittle Raiders will continue to keep their heroic tales alive by personally sharing their experiences. When the last cup is turned upside down, it will be their oral histories, history books or documentaries that will give us an impersonal small glimpse of what it took to answer the call to duty and to do that job well.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

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