Last of the Doolittle Raiders’ final goodbye: Three surviving WWII airmen mark 70th anniversary of raid on Japan by opening a 117-year-old cognac they had saved for a final toast
The surviving Doolittle Raiders, now all in their 90s, recognized their place in history for their daring World War II attack on Japan amid thousands of cheering fans, during a final ceremonial toast on Saturday to their fallen comrades. Three of the four remaining members (main) opened a special bottle of cognac dating back to 1896 (right), the year their captain, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, was born.
Back in the day: FILE – Thirty members of Jimmy Doolittleís Tokyo Raiders pose for a group picture in front of a B-25J bomber in Torrance, Calif., on April 17, 1987
Honored: Gen. James H. Doolittle in 1975. He led airmen on a daring raid on Japan during World War II
Final Toast for Doolittle Raiders
Veterans of Famed World War II Bomber Attack in the Pacific Meet to Salute Comrades
By BEN KESLING
Updated Nov. 10, 2013 10:44 p.m. ET
DAYTON, Ohio—In 1942, Ed Saylor was a 22-year-old Army Air Corps sergeant heading toward Japan aboard an aircraft carrier on a secret mission when he realized his bomber had an engine problem.
With no bomber mechanics or spare parts on board, his commander told him that if he couldn’t fix the plane, they’d just push it overboard, says the 93-year-old retired lieutenant colonel, who was the plane’s engineer. “That didn’t sound good,” he says, so he stripped the engine down and fixed it himself.
Lt. Col. Saylor, who was then a sergeant, and dozens of other Army airmen ended up taking off from the carrier hundreds of miles from the Japanese coast in 16 B-25 bombers. They became the famed Doolittle Raiders, after their commander Lt. Col. James Doolittle. Their daring attack boosted U.S. morale and began a shift in strategic momentum of World War II in the Pacific.
Of the original 80 men, only four remain. The three who can still travel met here Saturday at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, for a final toast to their comrades—a tradition they have kept up for more than 50 years. On stage, in front of hundreds of guests, the Raiders unsealed and drank from a bottle of 1896 vintage cognac they have been safekeeping since it was first given to Lt. Col. Doolittle in 1956 as a birthday present.
“I don’t remember having any doubt,” 98-year-old retired Lt. Col. Richard Cole says of the mission, which happened more than 70 years ago. But as Lt. Col. Doolittle’s co-pilot, he says, “I had a little advantage over the rest of the guys because I was flying with the best pilot.”
Japanese confidence peaked after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, and senior leaders assumed Americans couldn’t yet strike mainland Japan. Lt. Col. Doolittle, a test pilot and aeronautical wunderkind, led the effort to launch the medium-range bombers, which had never seen combat, from the deck of an aircraft carrier, an incredible undertaking at the time.
They would fly well past their normal range, dropping bombs on Tokyo and other cities, then land in Allied China.
Lt. Col. Doolittle piloted the lead plane, which, like all the others, carried only four bombs because their bays were taken up with added fuel tanks. “The airplane was so full of gas, there wasn’t any room for bombs,” Lt. Col. Saylor says.
“It was a turning point,” forcing the Japanese to defend the homeland, says C.V. Glines, a retired colonel and historian who has written extensively about the event and who solemnly read aloud the roster of original raiders just before the final toast. “It was one of those seemingly impossible feats.”
The 80 Army fliers had no idea about the goal of their top-secret mission until just before they were to fly. “After a couple days at sea, we reshuffled the planes and put them all on the back of the flight deck; that’s when I realized we’d be taking off from the carrier,” says Lt. Col. Saylor. “About the same time, we were told we were going to bomb Japan. It came over the loudspeaker, and the Navy all cheered. We didn’t cheer.”
“It was the first combat any of us had ever seen. I expected to get shot down,” Lt. Col. Saylor says. But the surprised Japanese forces mustered only slight opposition.
After successfully bombing their targets, the pilots were forced to ditch the planes when fuel ran out, having nearly all made it as far as the mountainous Chinese coast. Some raiders were captured and imprisoned by the Japanese; several were executed. Others were picked up by friendly forces and many were helped by Chinese peasants. One plane landed safely in the Soviet Union.
Lt. Col. Saylor’s wife first learned of his involvement in the raid while watching a Movietone newsreel in a Tacoma, Wash., theater, he says. She saw him on the screen, getting a medal from the wife of Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek.
In 1945, Doolittle, by then a general, and the raiders first officially reunited to commemorate their mission. It became an annual event. In 1959, they incorporated a private ceremony where they toasted each other with personal silver goblets, and displayed the cups of both the remaining men and the dead. Gen. Doolittle died in 1993. The Raiders had kept the vintage cognac stashed away, only to be used for the final toast.
The Veterans Day weekend ceremony Saturday included a flyover by World War II-era B-25 bombers.
“We’re getting so old that we can’t get around anymore,” says retired Staff Sgt. David Thatcher, 92, who was an engineer-gunner on one of the planes. “It’ll definitely be the last time.”
“I think it’s time to put it to rest,” says Lt. Col. Saylor. But as he sat on stage with his comrades for a final time, with cameras snapping photos, he was asked if the Raiders might just try and meet together again. “I don’t know if we will,” he offered with a smile. “We’ll have to decide.”
Edward J. Saylor, Airman Who Took Fight to Japan With the Doolittle Raiders, Dies at 94
Edward J. Saylor in 2014. He was one of 80 Army fliers on a mission to strike Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor.CreditDavid Ryder for The New York Times
SEATTLE — Edward J. Saylor, one of the last surviving members of the Doolittle Raiders, a band of World War II airmen who bombed Japan in early 1942, stunning the Japanese at a time when their army and navy were racking up victories across Asia, died on Wednesday at his home near here. He was 94.
His death was announced by the Doolittle Raiders, a group organized to honor the airmen. Only three of the original 80 men in the squadron remain alive, the group said. The team’s leader, James H. Doolittle, who was awarded the Medal of Honor after the raid and retired as a general in the Air Force, died in 1993.
Mr. Saylor, who enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1939 and stayed in the military for 28 years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel, was stoic and understated in talking about the raid, which many believed would be a suicide mission.
The 16 B-25 bombers — his was plane No. 15 — could not carry enough fuel to return to the aircraft carrier from which they took off, more than 600 miles from Japan. Their plan was to keep going after the run and land in mainland China, hoping to evade the Japanese Army after that.
But even taking off at all was an uncertainty. Launching land-based bombers, laden with fuel, bombs and five-man crews, from the short runway of a carrier designed for smaller fighter planes had been done in training, but never in combat.
That he survived the bombing run, and the water landing of plane 15, and then a cat-and-mouse drama for weeks with the Japanese Army as it hunted for the airmen — eight of the 80 men were captured and three were executed — was just a matter of luck and of doing one’s job, Mr. Saylor said in an interview with The New York Times last year.
“I didn’t dwell on it,” he said, his voice clipped and matter-of-fact, his shirt buttoned to the top. “It was just a mission we did in the war,” he added. “We did what we had to do.”
In some ways, the real test for Sergeant Saylor, who turned 22 the month before the raid, on April 18, 1942, came before takeoff, when an engine of his plane malfunctioned in testing on the carrier Hornet as the squadron sailed west toward Japan.
The task of finding the trouble and fixing it fell to him as the plane’s engineer gunner, he said. Disassembling a bomber engine on the heaving deck of an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Pacific, he said, had never been done, and it meant carrying every loose part into the fuselage as he worked, for fear that pieces would roll off the deck into the sea. On a coffee table in his house, he kept a replica of the gear arm that was at the heart of his, and his engine’s, trouble that day.
Military historians have said that while the raid caused relatively little physical damage to Japan, it may well have shifted, perhaps crucially, Japan’s military strategy: Surprised and alarmed by the attack, the Japanese began to pull back resources closer to the home islands in defense. And the raid unquestionably boosted American morale — a primary goal — by proving that United States forces had not been crippled after the disaster at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and a string of subsequent defeats. (The raid was dramatized in the 1944 movie “30 Seconds Over Tokyo,” with Spencer Tracy as Lt. Col. Doolittle, based on a book by Maj. Ted W. Lawson, another participant.)
The Doolittle attack “was designed to show Japan that it was vulnerable,” said Col. Mark K. Wells, who teaches military history at the United States Air Force Academy. He said that some historians had attributed the United States’ victory in the Battle of Midway in June 1942 at least in part to the altered Japanese strategy after the raid.
Mr. Saylor, who was born on March 15, 1920, in Brusett, Mont., said he became obsessed with aircraft engines from the moment he first saw a plane fly overhead as a boy. He was determined to understand everything about what made flight possible.
He continued to work with his hands after retiring from the military — building and selling houses, and later making stained glass art pieces.
He is survived by three children and a host of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, said Thomas Casey, a manager of the Raiders group. Mr. Saylor’s wife of 69 years, Lorraine, died several years ago, Mr. Casey said.
In telling the story of the Doolittle attack seven decades later to The Times, Mr. Saylor became most visibly emotional in talking about the Chinese boy who risked his life to save the men of plane 15 by helping them evade Japanese troops. Mr. Saylor said he vowed at the time to find the boy and bring him back to America, but in the maelstrom of the war, the boy disappeared without a trace.
“We owed him,” Mr. Saylor said.
Diary of the damned: Never seen before, a lost diary of the Great War so brutally vivid you’ll feel YOU are there in the trenches
Volunteer: Harry Drinkwater, pictured, recorded the horrors of the First World War in vivid diary entries
PUBLISHED: 18:58 EST, 7 November 2013 | UPDATED: 07:41 EST, 8 November 2013
After volunteering as an Army private following the outbreak of World War I in 1914, former grammar-school boy Harry Drinkwater, 25, joined a ‘Pals battalion’ — so-called because the men were encouraged to join up with local friends and work colleagues.
A few months later, his conversion from Stratford-upon-Avon shop assistant to soldier was complete.
In this extract from his remarkable diary – which it was strictly against the rules to keep and which has been published for the first time – Harry writes about his brutal introduction to the trenches at the Somme in Picardie, Northern France…
Thursday, December 16, 1915
Arrived in [the hamlet of] Suzanne today, after a very hard march. We’re billeted in tents, 12 men in each, encamped between the enemy and our own heavy guns.
At night-time, one sees little slits of light shining from the tents on the puddles of water outside, which give the impression of a fairy land.
Rolling into our blankets, we occasionally hear the ‘splash, splash’ as some fellow moves from one tent to another, or the plod of the sentry. Plus the continual shriek of shells.
Tomorrow we go into the trenches. I wonder what sort of a show we will make.
Sunday, December 19
No words can adequately describe the conditions. It’s not the Germans we’re fighting, but the weather. Within an hour of moving off, we were up to our knees in mud and water.
The mud gradually got deeper as we advanced along the trench.
We hadn’t gone far before we had to duck; the enemy were sending over their evening salute of shells.
Deluged: Three members of Harry’s company can be seen here posing in a trench flooded with mud almost to waist height
In common with others, I’ve done regular turns at the firing line. It’s a very creepy business looking over the top, imagining every noise is a German. A rat skirmishing among empty tins in no-man’s land is sufficient to attract all our attention.
Each morning, one hour before daybreak, every man stands in the trench until daylight. This is in case the Germans follow the old custom of attacking just before dawn. The same happens an hour before sunset.
Last night, I had a narrow squeak. I was wedged in the mud when I heard a shell coming. Unable to move quickly, I crouched when it burst on the parapet and got covered in dirt.
Later, we marched to our billets [for rest days]. This morning, Christmas Day, I took my shirt off – thick with dried mud – and had a wash. We had one tub and no soap between about 50 fellows.
Friday, December 31
Back on the firing line, and nearly up to our waists in mud. We’ve found a new diversion — at dusk, we put a small piece of cheese on the end of a bayonet, wait for a rat to have a nibble, and then pull the trigger.
Saturday, January 8, 1916
At about 3.30am, I heard noises that sounded like wires scraping together. Half an hour later, a sentry spotted two men rising from the ground about 30 yards in front of our trench. We all opened rapid fire.
At daybreak, we saw the result: a dead German lay about 20 yards in front. Scattered around were about a dozen hand-grenades. Given another five minutes, our trench would have been blown to bits.
The victim had got partly through our barbed wire — which is probably what I heard. Later, we raffled his bayonet scabbard. I was the winner and sent it home as a souvenir.
Harry’s next posting was to the front line near Arras in the region of Artois.
Saturday, March 4
Nothing here but trench after trench and, in places, the ground blown into heaps of dirt. The trees have been hacked to pieces — only black stumps remain. Nothing grows. Utter desolation.
Tuesday, March 7
Worked at a feverish pace, digging and strengthening trenches all through last night. Then through the day, I have to do an hour’s sentry duty every third hour.
This is followed by an hour as the relief man, when I’m able to sit down. For the third hour, I can sleep. I’m feeling like most of the other fellows – half dead.
Wednesday, March 8
Snowed all night. Had a hard job to keep awake. One or two fellows – of whom I was one – were found to be fast asleep at the end of their sentry. We’d gone to sleep standing up – and the relief man was also asleep.
Under military law, this is a crime of the first water [punishable by execution]. So, as a preventative, we’ve arranged between ourselves that each sentry along the trench will fire his rifle at intervals.
At dusk, I put my head over the top to have a look around and stopped a bullet on the side of my steel hat. The vibration made my head ache.
Thursday, March 9
Owing to food transports going astray, we have one loaf between five of us, a few biscuits and half a tin of marmalade each per day. Have just heard we have a ten-mile march before we can be billeted [for rest]. Jolly hard lines.
This annotated photograph shows the ‘billets’ where Harry and his comrades were taken for rest
Friday, March 10
It was snowing as we set out at 11.15 last night. I saw two fellows – fast asleep as they walked along – walk out of the ranks and fall into the ditch at the side of the road.
We halted for ten minutes’ rest and I dropped down into a puddle and went to sleep. Was unable to get up without help, and ended up hanging on to Lieutenant Davis on one side and a stretcher-bearer the other.
Tried to pull myself together and went headlong on the road. They got me to my feet again but I was helpless. Have a vague idea that I was laid on some straw. Then oblivion.
Sunday, April 23
Easter Sunday. A beautifully sunny [rest] day. I’m writing in a field beside a brook — I can easily imagine myself back in England.
We’re all struck with the strangeness of things; one week in Hell and the next in comparative bliss.
Harry was also helping to dig deep shafts that branched out towards the enemy lines. The idea was to lay explosive charges beneath German trenches – but as the Germans were doing likewise, the mining teams often tried to blow each other up halfway across.
Sunday, May 7
Working in the mines – an awful strain mentally. We’re some three-parts of a mile under the ground. Air is got down by means of a large pair of blacksmith’s bellows, connected to a long pipe. But it’s very stuffy, and we work with backs bent for eight hours.
Monday, May 8
Mines again. Feeling very fed up. No one jokes: we all have it in the back of our minds that the Germans’ mines will go up while we’re down one of ours – and it’s not a pleasant reflection.
Friday, May 19
The Germans forestalled us this morning by about three hours. After three months of hard work, our K14 mine, timed to go up at 8am, was blown in by the Germans at 4.30am.
There was a terrific explosion. The ground for yards around was lifted skywards, leaving a huge crater in the ground.
Captain Edwards, our company captain, crept out over my parapet to investigate the damage and was met by a fusillade of bullets. He stopped one through the shoulder and one in the head.
The moment after he was hit, an engineer sprang on to the parapet and, crawling on his stomach, dragged him back.
It’s worth noting that the German sentry who shot Edwards could also have shot his rescuer. If he refrained from humane motives, he was a sportsman.
Saturday, May 20
One of our fellows put his head and shoulders over the top and was immediately sniped through the head.
Sunday, May 21
After sentry duty, we passed Major Jones, second-in-command of the battalion, as we crept back to the dugout. Ten minutes later, he was being dug out of about 3ft of earth.
He’d gone out to the mine crater after passing us. Death was instant.
We’d barely arrived at our dugout when a runner came along and gave the gas alarm. At the same time, shells were raining down.
I helped to carry an NCO to the dressing station. His features were blown away but I recognised him by his identity disk as one of my pals.
He was one of two brothers. The other, a stretcher-bearer unconscious of his identity, was the one who dug him out. Arrived back at the dugout feeling very sick.
Monday May 22
At 11pm, our fellows, not sure of their ground in the dark, started slinging bombs in among themselves. Quite a usual occurrence.
Wednesday, May 24
Today, D Company, on our left, went over the top. They’d got about 100 yards when they were met by a cross-fire of machine guns and rifle fire.
But they still advanced. Some got to the German lines and were killed on the parapet; some got entangled in the barbed wire and riddled with bullets. Casualties: 33.
Orders were now given to erect barbed wire defences in the crater left by the exploded mine.
Tuesday, May 30
At 3am, we crawled into the crater and carried on wiring – just 15 yards from the German listening post. This crater alone has cost us 20 casualties so far.
Wednesday, May 31
Six of us relieved the sentries in the crater. It was an uncanny night: raw, cold and a thick mist. We lay on the inside lip and hardly moved.
At the first twinge of dawn, one of the fellows peeped over the top and saw four Germans digging like blazes within 12 yards of where we were lying.
Diaries: Harry’s remarkable diary is being published for the first time, 35 years after he died
For some reason, we’d been told that under no circumstances were we to fire; so we withdrew. It’s never been very clear to me why we should risk so much life just to put barbed wire entanglements in the bottom of a crater.
Today, it’s been strafed all day long. The Germans are very restless over this crater. They can’t quite make out what we’re doing with it and what we want it for.
Thursday, June 1
The crater has been completely transformed. We’ve now built a little shack on the near side, protected by sandbags.
Tuesday, June 6
At 4pm on Sunday, a shell landed in front of me and another behind, blowing in the rear of the trench and smothering me with dirt. Casualties were occurring rapidly.
I’d barely bandaged Jones, who was badly hit, when Eastwood came rushing in to say the shelter in the crater had been blown in and the sentry group buried. A day sooner, and I’d have been one of them.
Jinks and I gathered picks and shovels and made for the crater. We’d crawled about 15 yards when a shell landed immediately on top of the trench, partly burying us with earth.
I felt the force of the explosion force my head into my body and it was some seconds before I was able to see. By this time, it was impossible to go on. The ground vibrated with explosions and the air was thick with sulphurous fumes.
Buried alive: Sergeant Ashby (pictured far left before leaving to fight) was buried in the mine crater mentioned in Harry’s 6 June entry
I didn’t for a moment think we’d get out of this alive. But, after three hours, everything ceased as suddenly as it started.
Later, I found an unexploded shell within a couple of feet of where Jinks and I had been lying. The gods had been good.
We made our way back to the front line, dazed. It was unrecognisable: a series of holes, no real trench remaining.
Some fellows were lying about dead, some wounded and some alive – one of whom inquired about the fellows in the crater. Then I remembered why I’d left the line.
Gathering up what picks we could find, a sergeant and I crawled back over the top and into the crater. A wretched sight.
Young Cooper was wedged in the doorway dead, the remainder buried under the shack. We dug like fury for two hours, impelled by the fact that we could hear someone faintly groaning – and that at any moment, the Germans would be coming over.
Only Sergeant Ashby had some signs of life. Leaving those we couldn’t help, we carried him down to what remained of the front line.
At 9.30pm, Raper and Middleton – close friends – went down, killed by a rifle grenade. Then Jinks was hit by another as we lay next to each other. His legs had been blown off and he was going fast.
I could do little else than kneel by his side. He asked me not to leave him and recognised me almost to the last moment. I saw him go West. It was quickly over.
Harry Drinkwater, 25, joined a ‘Pals battalion’ — so-called because the men were encouraged to join up with local friends and work colleagues
Meanwhile, the Germans were coming in. Only a few got out of our trench again; the rest of the Germans were either bayoneted or bombed, and we buried them later.
Wednesday, June 7
Total battalion casualties for Sunday: 120. The roll-call this morning was somewhat pathetic. Each time a name was called out and no one answered, we had to say if we’d seen the fellow killed or knew if he was wounded.
There are now very few of the original men I joined with. The idea under which the battalion was formed, that of friends serving together, has long since passed.
Thursday, June 15
This afternoon we lost four more. But we’re quite resigned nowadays to losing old originals. It seems as if the fates have decreed that they’ve had a good run and it’s time they went.
Kilby asks: ‘Whose turn next?’ We all wonder…
Kilby is last mentioned in a diary entry dated January 23, 1917. He and Harry are at a rest camp in Boulogne and Harry is leaving for Blighty. By the end of the war, Harry had served on the Somme, at Ypres and in Italy and had received the Military Cross for bravery. After being demobbed, he worked as a civil servant. He never married and died in 1978