Guest Column: Doolittle’s Last Raiders

C/Maj. Alexander Clawson

“Airpower is like poker. A second-best hand is like none at all – it will cost you dough and win you nothing.” General George C. Kenney, 1921

April 18th, 1942: 80 airmen, officer and enlisted, set out on a mission that no one had ever attempted before, a vengeful strike against Japan after they’d bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941. That morning, 16 B-25 “Mitchell” bomber aircraft were launched from the USS Hornet west of Hawaii. One of the bombers couldn’t continue the mission and had to fall out of formation, but the other 15 aircraft made the 6-hour flight towards Japan. When they reached land, they lined up in single file and let loose their precious cargo, proving to the world that Japan, once thought neigh-impenetrable by outside forces, could be attacked by U.S. military might. All of the crewmen involved knew that they couldn’t just turn around and fly home after dropping their payload, but instead had to hope and pray that they could make it all the way to then-friendly China and eventually be retrieved by U.S. rescue teams. Once on the ground, some made it back to safety immediately, some were taken as Prisoners of War, but in the end, everyone made it home.

Fast forward over 70 years: Friday morning, 0700, 50-odd cadets and a two officers left from the 630th Cadet Wing in Kent, Ohio to travel across the state to see the final gathering ceremony of true American heroes: The Doolittle Raiders. On Friday the 8th of November, we drove the 177 miles from Kent to Dayton, carpooling in a 13-car convoy all the way down, then spent the day touring Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Saturday; the event we’d all been waiting for: seeing the Doolittle Raiders in person. By 2013, decades after the raid, only four of the Raiders were left, and only three could make it to the ceremony. They were warmly welcomed by admirals and generals of all branches, and by the acting Secretary of the Air Force, Eric Fanning. The Raiders sat in the middle of a 15-foot circle, listening to the accolades bestowed upon them, followed by a demonstration fly-by of the airframe model used by the Raiders. The ceremony commenced with two Air Force Academy cadets laying a wreath upon the Doolittle Raiders’ memorial there at the museum. The USAF has three core values to be instilled into and believed by every officer and enlisted: Integrity First, Service before Self, and Excellence in All We Do. The Doolittle Raiders embodied those three values with their bombing raid over Japan: Integrity, by never giving up on the mission or betraying the U.S. Armed Forces if captured; Service, by being willing to sacrifice their own lives to accomplish a mission of vital importance to the United States; and Excellence, by managing to complete the mission and spite the enemy by sticking around for another seventy years. Those three remaining Raiders, along with every U.S. Armed Forces Veteran, both with us and passed away, have helped shape the United States into the country it is today. Their sacrifices, ranging from time away from their families to falling in battle, show us just how truly dedicated those men and women in uniform are to defending this country, and why we devote a day of remembrance to them every November.

Later, when asked about how he felt after the ceremony, Cadet 3rd Class Mitchell Briggs said “I thoroughly enjoyed being able to attend the final toast and witness the B-25 fly over. It was amazing to see men who made a difference in the world. Even at 98 years old, Lt. Col Dick Cole is still able to command a room with his strong speaking voice and pride in his mission. These men are true American heroes and the entire ceremony gave me chills. I wouldn’t have traded this weekend for anything.”

As the crowds dispersed, either to their cars to head home or back into the museum to gaze longingly at the craft that once gracefully few so high, we gathered around our Professor of Aerospace Studies, Lt. Col Daniel Finkelstein and Captain Joel Martin to listen to a few final words before beginning our own trek home.

There will never be another public gathering of the Raiders, and being there to see them together was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity to be in the presence of true American heroism. Perhaps, out of every cadet who participated in this adventure, Cadet Major Robert Arthur captured the intensity of the ceremony most succinctly when he said it was an “eye opening experience.”

– C/Maj. Alexander Clawson