The 34th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron paid tribute by flying American flags during B-1B Lancer missions on the anniversary of the Doolittle Raid, April 18.
Pearl Harbor was only the first of many bold moves that made Japan seem nearly invincible in the early months of World War II. For a time, it was as if America and her allies were resigned to watch Japan devour chunks of Asia and the Pacific. In this grim environment, the Navy hatched a daring plan to strike back: If carriers could not get close enough to Japan for fighter aircraft, and even the heaviest of Army bombers were out of range, why not launch smaller medium bombers from the decks of carriers?
In 1942, Army Air Forces Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle, one of the most respected aviators in America, was tasked with making the allied plan a reality. He needed to find a two-engine bomber small enough to launch from a carrier yet with enough range to reach Japan, and a payload to make the trip matter. It was Doolittle who hand-picked the B-25 Mitchell and the 17th Bomb Group – composed of the 34th, 37th, 95th Bomb and the 89th Reconnaissance squadrons. Trusting Doolittle, they volunteered, trusted and deployed without knowing their true mission.
Doolittle’s Raiders sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge in early April. On the 18th, the task force was spotted by the Japanese almost 200 miles from their intended launch point. Doolittle’s 16 bombers launched early without even the time or fuel to join into formation. They flew individually to dispersed targets and consequently achieved only minor military and industrial damage. The strategic effect, however, cannot be underestimated. The raid was a boost for America’s morale and a devastating blow to Japan. Belief in the Japanese peoples’ invincibility and confidence in their isolation was shattered. Japan withdrew troops to defend their islands and rushed plans to attack more U.S. targets, namely Midway. As a result, the tide of the entire Pacific war would turn in favor of the allies within two months, and it all started with a daring raid and the small glimmer of hope it gave to America.
The Raiders gather on almost every anniversary since 1943 to toast their mission, commander and comrades. Each man has a small silver goblet; his name engraved both right side up and upside down. When a Raider passes, the others drink to his memory and gently invert his goblet. After today, only four of the 80 goblets will remain upright. Richard Cole, Robert Hite, Edward Saylor and David Thatcher made the difficult decision that it is time to declare the mission complete. Seventy-one years after their aircraft shuddered off the deck of the U.S.S. Hornet, today will be their final official reunion.
While the Raiders use these anniversaries to remember for themselves, they do something even more important; they serve to remind the rest of us.
The Raiders remind us, first, that we do not fight alone. Without a joint effort, the Doolittle Raid would not have happened. For as much as each service brings to the table, we are stronger together and stronger still with our civilian and coalition partners.
The Raiders also remind us that freedom requires sacrifice. They launched knowing that safe landings were out of the question. The best hope was parachuting out over free China. The Raiders went anyway and without hesitation. Two died in crashes. Another eight were captured, three of whom were executed. Countless thousands of civilians were murdered as enraged Japanese troops searched occupied Chinese territory for the airmen.
The Raiders remind us, above all, that we have an important legacy to uphold. In the military, we stand on the shoulders of generations of heroes.
Fittingly, B-1B Bombers from the 34th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, one of Doolittle’s own, will be flying into combat as the Raiders lift their goblets today. They do so to protect coalition lives, hold the enemy at risk, and give the people of Afghanistan their own small glimmer of hope.
Wherever you may be today, consider raising a glass to the Doolittle Raiders. Remember their mission and be thankful for the brave men stood up in a time of dire need when the odds were against them. Accept their reminder of what it means to be an airman and a warrior. As their mission concludes, ours is the humbling responsibility to continue in their formidable footsteps.