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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The Best of….Attack Stunned Area Vets: Pearl Harbor Survivors Recall Horror of Dec. 7, 1941

            Published December 2006, Senior Digest

            With the 65th anniversary of Pearl Harbor fast approaching, aging military veterans have planned a reunion, which may ultimately be the “last hurrah” to take place in Honolulu, Hawaii in December to commemorateJapan’s December 7, 1941 surprise attack and the start of World War II. 

         According to the Pearl Harbor Survivor’s Project, in 1941 the youngest Pearl Harbor survivors were only in their teens and early twenties.  Now their ages are approaching the early to mid 80s and frailties associated with advanced age may will make this year’s 65th Anniversary gathering and Survivors Summit the last official gathering. 

        On December 7, 1941, the surprise attack began at 7.55 a.m.   For almost two hours, the Japanese aerial attack sunk or damaged twenty-one American ships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.  American aircraft losses totaled 188 destroyed and 159 damaged on that  unforgettable day.   A total of 2,403 military personnel lost their lives, including 68 civilians, with the number of wounded reaching 1,178.  The Japanese would lose only 29 planes – less than 10 percent of their attacking force.

         Dr. Gary Hylander, a professor at  Stone Hill College says, “With 30,000 World War II veterans dying each month, it’s time to capture their stories.” To commemorate  and honor “The Day that Lives in Infamy” Senior Digest talks with three local veterans who share their eye witness accounts of the Japanese attack and reflect Pearl  Harbor, 65 years ago this month.

At Schofield Barracks

        At age 84, Lincoln resident Leo Lebrun remembers Pearl Harbor just like it was yesterday afternoon.  In 1941, unemployment would force this nineteen year old to enlist at  a United States Army recruiting office located at the main post office in the City of Woonsocket.  .

        After basic training at Fort Slokum, the largest recruiting depot east of the Mississippi River during World War II, a five-day train trip would deliver Lebrun to San Francisco.  From there, the private would be stationed in Hawaii at Schofield Barracks, assigned to C Battery, part of the 8th Field Artillery Hawaiian Division. (Japanese planes would fly over Schofield Barracks on their way to bomb Wheeler Field and Pearl Harbor.)   

       Traveling 15 miles from the Docks, Lebrun arrived at Schofield Barracks complex, six months before the Pearl Harborattack.  “It was really a beautiful place, just like a college campus,” remembers LeBrun.

        On his way to mass on held in a theater at Schofield Barracks, that December 7, 1941 Private Lebrun saw low flying aircraft flying over the building. “We thought those planes were ours because it was not unusual to see planes flying overhead,” he says. “Strafing and dropping bombs” forced the soldier to run for safety inside the theater.  By seeing the “red zeros” painted on the planes “we knew that they were Japanese.”

        After the attack, Lebrun went to outside to help the wounded and found his best friend, 19-year-old George Roberts of Los Angeles, killed by strafing.  “We were shocked, scared, and mad, but we were trained to handle it,” he said.  It took over two weeks for the military to notify LeBrun’s parents that he was not wounded in the attack.

       According to Lebrun, the planes were flying so close to the buildings that some of his friends actually saw the faces of the pilots.  If the Japanese planes came back in a second wave, he and the others who took shelter in the theater were ready.  “We went to a supply room and grabbed 50 caliber machine guns.  It was really difficult to hit [or damage a plane] with a 45 pistol,” he recalls.

       After the sneak attack, Lebrun’s artillery unit was assigned to defend the Punch Bowl, a site over looking Pearl Harbor. In this position, large 155 howitzers would protect the Island from invading troops.  “The first night we shot at anything that moved.  We killed a few mongooses.” He noted that even a few days later his unit could still see  heavy black smoke and fire from the damaged ships in the harbor, which were almost two miles away.  

        Days after the attack soldiers from every outfit would travel to Akins Field and Heeler Field “to pick up plane pieces and clean up those areas,” Lebrun added.

        Lebrun would later participate in five major campaigns against the Japanese, earning five battle stars.  Once discharged as a Corporal in August 1945, he would marry Irene Froment,  from Woonsocket.  The couple recently celebrated 61 years of marriage.  The Pearl   would work as a meat cutter and for the next 39 years was employed by Star Market made this his career.

 Serving on the USS Bagley

        Eighty-Four year old Carl Otto, a former police officer now lives at Attleboro-based Christopher Heights, an assisted living facility, and reflects on Pearl Harbor.  He remembers “seeing Japanese torpedo planes from the stern of the USS Bagley, fire torpedo’s at his ship and others at Pearl Harbor”.    

          Fresh out of boot camp in Newport,Rhode Island, Seaman Second Class Otto  chose to be assigned to the USS Bagley rather than being placed on a larger vessels such as an aircraft carrier or battleship..  A five day trip on a troop train would get the young sailor to the West Coast.  Ultimately, leaving Long Beach,California, the destroyer, manned by 150 sailors set course for Pearl Harbor, the ship’s home port.

         The USS Bagley was moored at the Navy Yard in Pearl Harbor for repairs when the Japanese sneak attack began.  That early morning, Otto, working as a mess cook, finished his duties and went to the rear of the ship to eat a plain egg sandwich and drink coffee, sitting on the gun mount by his friends.  “At first we thought an approaching plane was Chinese. We just didn’t recognize the Rising Sun emblem,” he said.

         “We actually saw the pilot waving to us with his plane only being about 100 feet away from our ship,” Otto noted, saying that “it shot a fish [torpedo] at us.”.  A loud explosion a few minutes later confirmed to Otto that he indeed saw the torpedo which he believes hit the battle ship, the USS Tennessee.

         General quarters called the sailors to their battle stations.  Otto, serving as a powder man, quickly primed the 5 inch 38 caliber gun with powder before the projectile was placed in it before firing.  Otto recalls that over 300 rounds of ammunition were fired from the ship’s four gun batteries that morning.

         “The battle went by so fast..”, remembers Otto,  stressing that his gunnery training allowed him to go into “automatic” mode” when preparing the power charges at his gun battery. .  That day he clearly remembers looking toward Battleship row and seeing the heavy smoke, intense fire and seeing the oil drenched water, some spots on fire.  

         During the aerial battle, “we were credited with downing the first Japanese plane that day,” Otto proudly notes.  Crew members armed with 50 caliber machine guns also were credited with destroying the second and third plane that approached the USS Bagley.  Only four sailors were “nicked” by shrapnel and the ship received no direct hits. (The ship would later be credited with downing five torpedo planes, one dive bomber and a high attitude bomber).

         According to Otto, the USS Bagley would leave the dock behind the USS Nevada and he watched that battle ship run aground on the soft mud bottom of the harbor.  If the battleship would have sunk at the entrance of the harbor “it would have made sitting targets of all the other ships [inside the harbor],” he said.  Ultimately, the USS Bagley would form a battle line with Destroyers to stop any possible invasion.

         Before being discharged from the Navy, Otto would participate in eight major battles in the South Pacific.   Returning to North Attleboro, he would marry Pauline Dailey and during their time together, Otto and his late wife would raise five children. 

 From the Rooftop of Naval Hospital

         Eighty-seven year old Eugene Marchand credits appendicitis with keeping him off the USS Cassin, which was in dry dock at the Navy Yard the day of Pearl Harbor.  During the Japanese attack, bombs and fire caused the 1,500 ton destroyer to roll off the blocks and capsize against the Destroyer, USS Downes, which was alongside, severely damaging both ships.

       Recuperating from surgery, twenty-one year old Marchand watched the attack from the third floor roof top of the Naval Hospital.  At first the young sailor thought the flying aircraft were part of a “sham battle” between the Army and Navy.  Ultimately seeing the ”big red fire ball” emblems on the low flying planes and watching fire and smoke caused by dropped bombs and strafing brought home the point that the battle was not staged, but the real thing. 

        “The Japanese planes flew so close to us we could have hit the planes with rifle fire,” Marchand claims.  Nurses and fellow patients urged him to return back inside by warning him to watch out for the deadly shrapnel.  He noted that no bombs were dropped on this hospital.

        While on roof watching the battle, the first class carpenter Marchand claims to have seen the first torpedo to hit Fort Island, a nearby amphibious base.  After the attack he was reassigned to the USS Whitney, a destroyer tender.

        Being discharged from service after fighting in two South Pacific Battles, Marchand would marry Elaine Degina, from North Attleboro and raise six children.  He was employed by local manufacturing companies, ultimately working for the City and retiring as a truck driver for the highway department.    

       With each passing year, thousands of Pearl Harbor survivors are passing away. Through the Pearl Harbor Survivors Project, military and civilian survivors or their family members can not only share stories, but play a vital role in rebuilding crew rosters of the ships docked in the harbor that day.  Please call 1-866-PHStory or go to www.pearlharborstories.org

            Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  This article was published in the December 2006 issue of Senior Digest.