DAYTON, Ohio — The roar of B-25 bomber engines still echoed overhead as 96-year-old Richard E. Cole slowly walked to the podium Wednesday afternoon.
The Army Air Forces veteran, one of the five remaining survivors of Doolittle’s Tokyo Raid, was unfazed by the pomp and circumstance around him, as well as the rock star welcome he and his fellow Raiders received at the 70th anniversary celebration of the famous April 18, 1942, mission, hosted by the National Museum of the United States Air Force.
He quietly told the crowd that he never expected the daring raid, the nation’s first military response against the Japanese homeland four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, to make him a legend.
“We all shared the same risk. We had no realization of the positive effect of our mission,” said Mr. Cole, his voice cracking while a worn blue baseball cap shielded his eyes from the blazing sun. “We’re grateful we had the opportunity to serve, and mindful that the nation benefited from our service.”
Four of the five surviving Raiders - Mr. Cole, Edward J. Saylor, Thomas C. Griffin and David J. Thatcher - reunited this week to share their stories with other veterans, history buffs, members of the media and anyone else who showed up. Raider Robert L. Hite, 92, was too ill to make the trip to Dayton.
On Thursday night, the four men once again will take part in a personal tradition started by their former leader, Lt. Col. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle. Inside the sprawling Air Force Museum sits a glass case filled with 80 gleaming goblets, one representing each Raider, with a bottle of Hennessy Very Special Cognac - given to the Raiders by Doolittle - waiting to be opened by the last two survivors.
The goblets were on display inside the U.S. Air Force Academy, where they served as a reminder to younger airmen of the heroism of their predecessors.
“I was humbled, as a cadet, as an 18-year-old kid, walking by that Doolittle Raider display,” said Lt. Col. David M. Bachler, who teaches history at the academy. “It’s great for the cadets to have this living history” in front of them at the reunion.
Minutes before Mr. Cole’s brief speech, a squadron of 20 B-25s took off from airfields at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The planes soared above the crowd several times, drawing raucous cheers from an audience scattered across the grounds. Many were moved to tears by the tribute, which showcased the plane that made U.S. military history 70 years ago.
The Doolittle Raid, launched from the USS Hornet about 650 miles off the coast of Japan, was the first time B-25s had taken off from the deck of a Navy aircraft carrier. Doolittle, who piloted the first plane with Mr. Cole riding shotgun, had less than 400 feet of runway to work with. After dropping their bombs on six Japanese cities, including Tokyo, the plan called for the Raiders to land in China, where American planes would be waiting for them.
But Japanese scout ships spotted them 200 miles before their designated launch point, meaning the 16 crews likely wouldn’t have enough fuel to make it to the air fields. Fully expecting to die, the Raiders never flinched, and their bravery set a lasting example.
“You don’t hesitate when you have a job to do,” said L.B. Comley, 82, a Dayton native and fellow Air Force veteran who came to see the Raiders in person. “They did one heck of a job.”
Each Raider has unique stories to tell about both the mission and the harrowing events that followed. Mr. Griffin, 95, went on to serve in Europe and spent 22 months in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Mr. Saylor and the rest of his five-man crew hiked across 100 miles of Chinese countryside, all the while being hunted by Japanese soldiers.
Mr. Thatcher’s plane crashed into waist-deep water just off the Chinese coast, and he was later awarded the Silver Star for gallantry for pulling his crewmates out of the wreckage and bandaging their wounds.
Yet those personal accounts went untold for many years, as the Raiders viewed their role in World War II history as just another mission. Even close family members said it took decades before they learned everything.
“He never talked about it. I didn’t find out about it until I was 45 years old,” said 59-year-old Becky Meadinger, Mr. Thatcher’s daughter. “When you’re living with him every day, that’s just not the kind of stuff that you talk about.”
Ms. Meadinger said she finally heard the full account while listening to her father give a speech at a veterans memorial dedication in Mr. Thatcher’s home state of Montana.
The annual reunion celebration, Mr. Cole said, isn’t just an opportunity for the survivors to relive the grand sortie; it’s also a solemn occasion, one that brings fond memories of friends rushing back to their minds.
“It’s a reminder to us of the friendship we had with those who have gone before,” Mr. Cole said.