Memorial Day: The Final Reunion


Following the attack on Pearl Harbor that started the Second World War, the Pacific fleet and ground forces were in a constant state of defensive and measures to buy time in the hopes reinforcements would be able to help.  Papers and books have been written by countless historians that document the failure of government and military to be adequately prepared for an expected war.  The unprepared nature of our fighting forces late in 1941 and into early 1942 caused morale problems and loss of confidence, which culminated in the surrender of our army in the Philippines on May 8. 1942.

The combination of the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor and the actions of under prepared and ill equipped forces, the military leadership desperately wanted some good news to boost morale and to convince the civilians, probably the military forces as well, that Japan could be attacked and that the United States could conduct offensive actions.  Unless the tide turned, the Japanese would stake claim to a majority of the Pacific Ocean.

Jimmy Doolittle, already an aviation legend before the war, was selected to plan and lead a raid on the Japanese homeland.  The plan was bold and daring.  Using B-25 medium bombers, he would take off from an aircraft carrier, attack designated targets in Japan, and continue to fly to selected fields in China.  The bombers were not designed for naval operations, and many felt the bombers would not even be able to take off successfully.  Doolittle, had confidence in the ability of the aircraft to perform the mission successfully, but insisted his aircraft would be the first to take off just in case.

After a lengthy training period and many practice missions, the bombers were loaded onto the USS Hornet and the task force set sail for Japan.  Ten hours before the scheduled launch on April 18, 1942, a Japanese picket boat was spotted and destroyed.  However, there were indications that the boat sent messages warning of the approaching fleet.  Doolittle decided to launch the attack immediately.  The bombers would still be able to hit their targets, but the ability to continue to their selected airfields in China was doubtful.

The attack proceeded and the bombers were able to hit their targets and continue on their way.  None of the bombers made their selected airfields in China.  Pilots had to bail out of the bombers into foreign and unknown territory and all bombers were lost in the operation.  One bomber actually landed in Russia, but all other crewmembers were scattered in remote locations.  Some of the crews were captured, but majority were able to get to safety.  Of the eighty pilots and crew, sixty-nine were able to escape capture or death.  The pilots and crew were assisted by the Chinese, which paid a very high price for lending aid.

From a pure physical perspective, the raid did not make a difference.  The damage caused was minimal at best.  However, from a strategic perspective the raid was very successful.  For the first time in the war (and for the first time in a long historical period), the Japanese were attacked on their home soil.  The effects on their homeland defense strategies caused the removal of some forces from the operational Pacific Theater.  In addition, the raid was an embarrassment to the military leaders and caused their future decisions to be more timid.  With the Battle of Midway in early June, 1942, the war pivoted for the Japanese.  Midway was the point where the Japanese went from offensive to defensive actions for the remainder of the war.

Jimmy Doolittle, as well as other surviving raiders went on to serve with distinction and honor throughout the war, although not all survived.  When the war ended, the surviving members of the Doolittle Raid, like many other military nits, began to have annual reunions.  The surviving members all decided to honor their leader with the acquisition of a bottle of special cognac from 1896 (the year of Doolittle’s birth).  The cognac is surrounded by a display case of eighty goblets.  With the start of each reunion, a roll call is performed. Through the years, as more and more of the survivors passed away, their goblet was turned upside down, signifying their passing.  Eventually, when only two raiders are still living, both will share the cognac in honor of those was left before them.  It is a unique and quite well known ceremony.

As of a month ago, there are only four living raiders.  As they have aged, reunions are harder and harder to accomplish, and the survivors made the decision that this recent reunion would mark the end of this tradition.  At some point later this year, and in absolute secrecy, the remaining four raiders will share the bottle and honor their comrades.

While reading the article, I was instantly reminded that this generation is fading away before our eyes.  As we now approach a week after Memorial Day, 2013, the parades have concluded, the wreaths laid down will soon be picked up, and people will go about their daily routine.  The pilots and crew of the Doolittle Raid, as well as all of those who fought for our freedom, paid a high price for people to be able to do things where and when they want.  We, as the recipients of the fruits of their sacrifice and dedication, should constantly honor their memory.  Not just on Memorial Day or Veterans Day, but every day.  Honor their courage and sacrifice every day.  Thanks veterans when you can.



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