Tradition is over as last of Doolittle’s Raiders lifts his cup
On permanent display in the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, sits a single case built by a single man.
Its 80 velvet-lined compartments each hold a single silver goblet with a single name engraved. On one side, the name etched right side up, the other upside down.
The goblets were presented in 1959 by the city of Tucson, Arizona, as a tribute to the men who not only had done what had never been done before but in their doing had lifted the hopes of a nation in one of its darkest hours.
To a man, each was a volunteer, and except for a select few, all they knew was the mission was dangerous. Yet forward they stepped and into the breach they went.
The time was early February 1942, and America was on her back. Pearl Harbor had been bombed just two months prior, Wake Island had fallen, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur was on the defensive in the Philippines. Japan was on the march, and America was in retreat.
The country desperately needed hope, but with the battle front 7,000 miles away and supply lines crippled, Commander in Chief Franklin Roosevelt knew it would not be a decisive military victory that would provide it. No, in the short term, it would have to be a symbolic victory, a moral victory. Something every American could rally around as it prepared to do what no other nation in the history of the world had ever done: save that world from itself.
Enter one Lt. Col. James Doolittle and a plan to launch Mitchell B25 medium bombers off the deck of an aircraft carrier, point them towards Tokyo, have them drop their bombs and then fly on to China in hopes the crews could make contact with friendly Chiang Kaishek Chinese forces fighting their Japanese occupation.
On Feb. 3, 1942, two Mitchells successfully took off from the deck of the USS Hornet stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, and the “Doolittle Raid,” as it would come to be known, was approved. By the beginning of March, crews were training at Eglin Field in Florida, and on the morning of April 2, 1942, the Hornet set free from her overnight mooring in San Francisco Bay, steamed under the Golden Gate Bridge and into the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.
In less than two months, one of the most daring raids in military history had gone from paper to testing to activation.
By 9:30 a.m. April 18, 1942, all 16 bombers were in the air and on their way to Japan. In the co-pilot seat of crew No. 1, Lt. Richard (Dick) E. Cole found himself up close and personal to the very same Lt. Col. James (Jimmy) H. Doolittle he had watched as a kid years earlier fly in the skies above McCook Field, outside Dayton.
He knew he might not survive the mission, yet there he was. He was 26 years old and sitting next to his boyhood hero, skimming the ocean at 200 feet above the waves to avoid detection, on his way to bombing Tokyo. Truth truly was stranger than fiction.
As a military mission, the Doolittle Raid delivered no lasting damage to Japanese facilities but as a moral booster for anxious Americans back home it was a resounding success. The raid had proven Japan was not invincible and that even in the worst of her times, America could still punch back.
This past week, 101-year-old Dick Cole again followed in the tradition he’d done so many times before. He took his own silver goblet filled with 1896 cognac (the year Doolittle was born) and toasted the raiders who had died since the last meeting. This time it was to Staff Sgt. David Thatcher, who died in June.
And with that the tradition ends.
Because on permanent display in the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, sits a single case with 80 velvet-lined compartments each holding a single silver goblet.
Only a single cup remains right side up. That cup belongs to Cole.
A toast to Lt. Cole and to all his fellow raiders for a job well done when it was needed most.
Oh, and that case? It was made by none other than Cole himself.
GEOFF CALDWELL lives in Joplin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” Cole, a surviving member of the 1942 raid on Tokyo led by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, opens an 1896 bottle of cognac the Raiders had been saving for their final toast at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.