Looking around the auditorium, legends fill the room.
A Tuskegee Airman subtly takes his seat in the crowd. Medal of Honor recipient George “Bud” Day strolls in on his wheelchair and takes a seat near the front. And on the stage stand three men who hundreds came to honor.
This was one of the many recognitions Lt. Col. Dick Cole, Lt. Col. Ed Saylor and SSgt. David Thatcher, all three Doolittle Raiders, received during their last official reunion, April 17 to 20, 2013, on the Florida Northwest coast.
During this handful of days, thousands of people, young and old, came out to show their support.
The DoolittleRaiders started with 80 airmen in their unit, but 71 years later, only four remain, the youngest being in his early 90s.
These Raiders did something extraordinary April 18, 1942 – they delivered the first blow to Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Seventy-one years is a long time. Who won the World Series 71 years ago? For that matter, who won the Super Bowl two years ago? Things that seem important in the moment, but are forgotten easily, rarely make for impactful moments to be written in the history books of our children and our children’s children. But an event who’s impact can be lived today through a country’s freedom is something few can say they’ve been part of.
The Doolittle Raiders can say this. All 80 of them. And America hasn’t forgotten it. This can be said in confidence.
For four days, the Raiders were treated like the heroes they are.
People lined walls by the hundreds, waiting in line up to two hours just to shake a Raiders’ hand, and to get an autograph. Airmen of Hurlburt Field and Eglin Air Force Base filled auditoriums in hopes to ask these Raiders a question.
A popular question asked throughout the week – what was going through your mind knowing you’re going to take off on a mission that you may not return from?
Though the responses slightly varied, the message was consistent – their only thought was on the mission. The feeling of fright fell to the way side to their task at hand – send a message to Japan that we can hurt them at home.
And that’s exactly what they did.
Under the command of then Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, 80 men flew 16 aircraft off of a carrier in the Pacific, dropping bombs on oil storage facilities, factory areas and military installations.
When news of the raid reached the low-morale Americans, spirits rose through the roof. Up until this point, America was getting their tails kicked overseas.
The raid was considered a huge psychological win. It raised morale for Americans all over and it sent a loud message to Japan – we’re coming for you. Be afraid.
Many things have changed during the past 71 years. Our freedom is not one of those things.
Watching folks interact with the Raiders reminds me of how folks would react to meeting superman. Children jump at the chance to take a picture with a Raider, prodding at mom and dad until they get their face time with one of the heroes.
Fellow World War II veterans don their old uniforms, which is as squared-away as a military training instructor on graduation day. And shall we not forget the ladies. Cut in front of a lady who’s on line to get an autograph from a Raider, and your health becomes at risk – I learned this while maneuvering through the line to interview folks. Not good.
It’s a warm site to see how these veterans are treated today. This wasn’t always the case. Pull aside any person wearing a “Vietnam” ball cap, and they’ll tell you that first hand. But first they will thank you for your service, since few have done the same to them.
Knowing that because of men like Lt. Col. Dick Cole, Lt. Col. Ed Saylor and SSgt. David Thatcher, America has a strong Air Force, and freedom to enjoy. Here doesn’t do these men justice. All 80 of them.
Aim high, Raiders. Fly, fight, win.