Doolittle spirit strong at Raiders reunion
by Tech. Sgt. Mark Kinkade
Air Force Print News
05/15/01 - FRESNO, Calif. -- They all call him "the General." He was the hero, they said, not them. And he is always with them in their hearts and in their minds.
When 12 of the surviving 25 Doolittle's Raiders met for their annual reunion here May 10 to 13, the spirit of the man who led them on an improbable mission to shore up American morale in the early days of World War II was strong. To a man, they credited Gen. Jimmy Doolittle for their mission, their careers and their lives.
"General Jimmy Doolittle was my idol," said retired Air Force Col. Bill Bower. "He inspired people to do things, to exceed their normal thoughts and beliefs."
The Raiders became the stuff of Air Force legend when Doolittle found 80 volunteers to fly 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers from the deck of the USS Hornet on an air strike against Tokyo. The volunteers trained for months for the mission, then launched their aircraft in a heaving sea April 18, 1942.
Doolittle and his Raiders completed their mission, dropping their bombs on Japanese industrial and military targets, then turned for airfields in China. But bad weather prevented the crews from landing their aircraft. Fourteen hours after the first bomber launched, four Raiders were dead, all but one aircraft crashed or ditched in the sea, and Doolittle's Raiders were U.S. heroes.
During the reunion, each Raider was asked to tell the story of the raid dozens of times. And while the memories may have varied from man to man, each said they weren't heroes. They only did what they knew they could do, what they had to do. Doolittle, they said, showed them they could do anything.
"We came along at a time when we had the opportunity to do something that had to be done," said Bower, a pilot on one of the bombers in the attack. "We didn't think it was a tough thing, or particularly dangerous. He inspired that kind of confidence. We were all for (the mission)."
The Raiders have reunited annually since 1946 when Doolittle brought the surviving crews together for a birthday bash in Florida.
The party was a wild affair, said historian C.V. Glines, so raucous that the night manager at the hotel they stayed in left a message for the day manager reading: "This has been the roughest night of my life."
That party has grown in recent years. The reunion has become a focal point for a series of festivities -- banquets, meetings, book signings and air shows -- built around the Raiders and their mission.
This year, Fresno played host to 13 restored B-25 Mitchell bombers that flew in for the reunion to honor the crews. During a brilliantly sunny morning May 11, the bombers flew in formation over California's Central Valley, the Golden Gate Bridge and the USS Hornet anchored at Alameda Point on San Francisco Bay.
More than 20,000 people turned out May 12 to watch the bombers fly a local mission over Fresno's airport. While the crowd cheered the aircraft and milled about the vintage aircraft parked on the flight line, the remaining Raiders sat in plastic chairs in an area away from the crowd and watched the formation.
"The general loved to watch the bombers fly," said retired Air Force Col. Henry "Hank" Potter, a co-pilot on Doolittle's aircraft during the raid. "Up until the end he was always ready to go see the planes. He really loved the aircraft."
The night before the air show, the Raiders were the guests of honor at a dinner at Fresno's Legion of Valor Museum. The men fielded questions from the audience and listened to testimonials from two former USS Hornet sailors who were on the ship during the raid, as well as the man who parachuted into Japan to help free Raiders who were captured when their aircraft went down after the mission.
"They all thanked me for what I did," said Richard Hamada, who was with the Office of Special Services during the war. "But it was my honor to help them. They are the men who should be thanked."
Potter told the audience that despite the passage of nearly 60 years, the reunions are still special.
"When we're together, it's like (the mission) was yesterday," he said. "When we're alone and apart, that's when I think about how much time has passed and it seems so long ago."
Time is catching up with the Raiders. Each man is at least 80 years old, and more Raiders die with each passing year.
To remember their fallen comrades, the Raiders hold a closed ceremony, never witnessed by anyone who did not fly on the mission. A special case delivered to each reunion by Air Force Academy cadets holds 80 silver goblets. Each is inscribed with a Raider's name.
When they meet, they hold a roll call of every original Raider. When they complete the call, they open the case and turn over the goblets bearing the names of Raiders who died that year. This year, the Raiders turned over four goblets Friday morning before setting out for a day of book and poster signings. And, for the first time, the Raiders recreated the ceremony for a History Channel video crew. They said they wanted to leave a record of the ceremony for future generations.
But Potter was quick to discount a swell of rumors running rampant among air show participants that this was the last Raider reunion.
"Not as long as there are Raiders around," he said. "We'll keep meeting until the last man. That's what the general would have wanted."
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