I recently took my nine-year-old nephew to the national Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. The museum, which is adjacent to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, covers the history of aviation from hot-air balloons to the space station; however, we spent most of our time looking at the planes and listening to the stories from World War II because my nephew is a big fan of the Spitfire V.
Our tour guide said an English veteran of the war had visited the museum and likened flying a Spitfire to dancing with the prettiest girl in the room.
Although the nephew was the fascinated by the tales of the Battle of Britain and the cleverly named bombers, the Doolittle Raid was the story that stuck with me. For those that don’t know:
On April 18, 1942, 16 twin-engine bombers took off from the aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Hornet with the intent of bombing Tokyo. According to our tour guide, the mission was more about boosting the morale of the American people and armed forces than inflicting significant damage on Japan. Naturally, the plan didn’t go according to plan. The ship was spotted by a Japanese fishing boat about 600 miles offshore.
When radio chatter started, it was either go or dump the plans into the sea and head back to Hawaii because the United States couldn’t afford to lose another aircraft carrier so soon after Pearl Harbor.
Rather than abandoned the mission, Commander James Doolittle ordered his men to go. Eighty men, a crew of five men to each plane, took off. Because of the early launch, the plans had just enough full to make it to safe zones in China—as long as they didn’t go off course, have to take evasive action or get lost.
All 16 planes took off successfully and hit their targets in Japan, all 16 encountered anti-aircraft fire and/or intercepts, and all 16 crash-landed or the crew had to bail out. One man died bailing out, and two others drowned. Eight men were captured. The Japanese shot three of them and one died from disease brought on my malnutrition and abuse. One crew landed in Russia and later escaped. The others either landed in the safe zone or were smuggled into safe zones by Chinese civilians and soldiers.
The exhibit turns bittersweet with a glass case, which holds 80 silver goblets and one bottle of cognac. Each man has a personalized silver goblet (the raider’s name is engraved on the cup twice—right side up and upside down) and the goblets of those who have died are inverted. The Raiders have held an annual reunion since the late 1940s, and at each reunion the surviving raiders perform a roll call and toast their fallen comrades. All but five cups are inverted.
When only two Raiders remain alive, they will meet and drink a final toast using the 1896 Hennessy cognac. As I stood there, I realized that within the next few years, the cognac will be opened, the last cup inverted, and the raid—and the rest of World War II—will pass beyond living memory.
The story of the raid has stayed with me for weeks now. Perhaps there's a story in there or perhaps it's just the realization of what we're about to lose when this generation passes.