They arrived on the April 16 supported by the Ft. Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, the Ft. Walton Beach Military Affairs Committee, and several corporate sponsors who were not allowed to use the event for advertising. It made sense that the surviving Doolittle Raiders picked small-town Ft. Walton Beach for their 71st Reunion, since this was the town where the volunteer B-25 crews first gathered together to begin specified training for a secret mission. This was where it began, and the Doolittle Raiders decided that it would also end here, announcing that this would be their last reunion.
So, this year’s reunion became a destination, something to go to see as the Doolittle Raiders make themselves available for the last time as a group, in a forum where they agreed to retell and relive their storied mission. They came, identified by their white hats which they have worn for many reunions – these are the good guys – and sat patiently through four days of events where historians and military officers told of their mission and what it meant in World War II to a demoralized America. It came four months after Pearl Harbor while all the news was of defeat at the hands of the Japanese army across the Pacific islands and the sinking of American shipping in the Atlantic by German submarines.
Seventy-one years later to the day, they returned to the training base where they first gathered. They had signed on as volunteers years ago, and this week they agreed to a rigorous program which, no doubt, was physically demanding on men all over 92 years old. The Doolittle Raiders did multiple events each day, sitting on stages, listening to speeches, riding through the small-town America parade in Ft. Walton Beach, attending a banquet packed with dignitaries, and signing autographs. They reserved the evening of the actual anniversary of the fabled mission, April 18, to themselves and their families, in which they decided not to open and not to drink the bottle of cognac which Gen. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle had bought for the final reunion, to be drunk when only two Raiders survive. A final and private reunion remains for a future date wherein they will toast the Raiders and their forever famous mission.
Three Doolittle Raiders returned to Ft. Walton Beach: Lt. Col. Dick Cole, Lt. Col. Edward Saylor, and Staff Sgt David Thatcher. Each had his own story and place in the formation of 16 bombers, each with a 5-man crew. Cole was Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot in the lead airplane. They had the job of that first take-off from the carrier, the USS Hornet (CV 8), and proved that the short take-off training done at what was then Eglin Field, Fla., had properly prepared them all. Dick Cole related that the take-off at maximum weight to carry enough fuel wasn’t that difficult, since the wind was blowing hard at 30 knots or more and the ship was going almost 20 knots. When the plane was just lifting off the deck the effective wind speed over the wing was more than 70 knots, making the short take-off for the mission the easiest one of all. The real problem was the pitching of the deck in the rough seas and heavy winds. The crews had all made the training goal of being able to get their airplanes airborne off of a 500 foot strip. The carrier deck gave them only a bit over 400 feet, but the extra advantage of winds at sea and the velocity of the ship gave them a margin of safety. Ed Cole continued service to his country in the Air Corps and Air Force, retiring in the 1960s.
Ed Saylor was honored at Eglin Air Force Base with the naming of a maintenance hangar. He was the enlisted (Corporal) on ship number 15. He told his own story, standing at the podium in the newly named Saylor Maintenance Hangar, in an impromptu 12-minute speech. He said, after the airplanes were loaded on the ship and the carrier had launched out to sea on the Pacific crossing an engine malfunction was discovered that would make #15 abort. If the airplane could not make the mission, it was to be pushed overboard to sink in the ocean. Doolittle asked Saylor if he could fix the engine; Saylor said yes. He took the engine off the wing and, with the Navy’s help, took it below, dismantled it, performed depot level repairs, and re-assembled and re-installed it. Saylor said the job was complicated by having none of the manuals on the ship. He had to remember where all the pieces went. He said there were only a couple left over when the engine went back on the plane, to applause and laughter from the audience of about 1,000 people.
Ed Saylor provided a full narrative of the mission. Telling about the take-off and saying how the winds helped. He said the individual airplanes were sitting ducks for the Japanese air defenses, if the Japanese had truly been alerted to the attack. They weren’t, and the airplanes split up for their bombing runs on four Japanese cities without much opposition. They had achieved surprise. They flew across the Japanese Islands toward China without enough gas to reach Chinese-held bases. He also told of the help the crews received from the Chinese in avoiding capture by the Japanese after ditching near a Chinese island. Saylor won a battlefield commission later in the war while serving in Europe. He continued his career as a maintenance officer, retiring in the 1960s.
As leader of the Doolittle Raid, Jimmy Doolittle received the Medal of Honor, almost all of the Raiders were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), and David Thatcher was awarded a DFC as well as the Silver Star. Thatcher was the flight engineer of crew #7, which was the crew most featured in the film “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.” The film doesn’t explain why Thatcher would additionally receive a medal higher in precedence than the officer members of his crew. His actions in helping his other four crew members, who were all badly injured after the ditching of his aircraft, merited the Silver Star. Working with the Chinese underground, carrying the four others who couldn’t walk, Thatcher evaded capture in Japanese territory and saved the lives of the others. The Chinese helped them move over Japanese held territory and to the nearest Chinese hospital. Ted Lawson, Thatcher’s pilot, had to have his leg amputated at mid-thigh level, while still in China, but the entire crew returned to the U.S., and most of the Raiders continued to serve until the end of the war. Thatcher mustered out of the Army Air Corps in 1945 after continuing to fly on bombers in Europe.
Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), also located in the Ft. Walton Beach area, finds kinship with the Doolittle Raiders in several ways. We hear a lot about “anti-access” as a major problem in the future for our military. We’re told that bases will be harder to find, making military operations untenable without a port or airfield to place our forces, and that America will become unable to act. The Doolittle Raiders faced the most formidable anti-access problems imaginable, with the entire expanse of the Pacific Ocean and its many islands west of Midway as unavailable to land, arm, or refuel their bombers. They solved it with specialized training of pilots for short take-offs, extra fuel tanks with additional cans of fuel loaded on board, and an aircraft carrier. Modern day special operations have launched from aircraft carrier decks as well in the Haiti operation of 1994 and in the initial attacks on southern Afghanistan in Oct. 2001.
Today’s Air Commandos will also point to the method of taking an aircraft off the flight line of the conventional Air Force, modifying it with special equipment, training aircrews to fly it in innovative ways, then putting it into the fray. Admittedly, it can be done like the Raiders did it, in that the modifications were simplifications of the aircraft – more fuel, dropping weight, removal of the Norden bombsights – making the resulting mission aircraft more primitive than before. The aircraft on the flight lines of AFSOC bases are both high end and low end modifications, featuring C-130s modified with sophisticated defensive systems, sensors, guns, and radar systems as well as aircraft that look very primitive, modified only to carry more fuel and a couple of long-range radios (SATCOMs).
Still, the average AFSOC Air Commando is taught that his heritage touches the Doolittle Raid, but is also rooted in the 1st Air Commando Group that used airplanes thought less than suitable for the European and Pacific Theaters. Some aircraft, like the C-47s and gliders, were fitted for night flying and supported long range penetrations (LRPs) by the special combat soldiers of British Gen. Orde Wingate, Lord Louis Montbatten, and America’s Merrill’s Marauders. One of the 1st Air Commando Group’s senior pilots was none other than Dick Cole, who took off from the deck of the Hornet on April 18, 1942, as co-pilot of Raider aircraft one, sitting next to Jimmy Doolittle.