CINCINNATI – The jovial banter and storytelling will halt, and guests will be ushered out of the meeting room, the door shutting behind them.
Five men, all in their 90s, will come to military-erect attention. Before them will be a wooden display case with 80 silver goblets. On each, a name is engraved twice: to be read right-side-up — for those still alive — or to be read placed upside-down, in memory of the 75 now dead.
"To those who have gone," 96-year-old Lt. Col. Richard Cole will toast, raising his goblet high.
The other four surviving Doolittle's Raiders — Maj. Thomas Griffin, Lt. Col. Robert Hite, Lt. Col. Edward Saylor and Master Sgt. David Thatcher — will answer in unison: "To those who have gone."
The ceremony Wednesday will come 70 years to the day after the bombing raid over Tokyo led by Lt. Col. "Jimmy" Doolittle that helped change the course of World War II. Four days of celebration are planned April 17-20 at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton, including a fly-in of B-25 bombers like they flew. Special guests include survivors or relatives of the USS Hornet aircraft carrier crew that launched them and of Chinese villagers who helped save them after the raid.
The toast ritual grew from early get-togethers led by Doolittle, who died in 1993.
"It is a very private moment," said Cole, a Dayton native who lives in Comfort, Texas. "You remember the ones who didn't make it, you think about them, and you are sorry they aren't with us. And then the ones fortunate to still be living trade off stories."
The stories are many, their bond forged in a daring mission.
"I didn't expect to survive. We should have been shot down," said Saylor, 92, a Brusett, Mont., native who lives in Puyallup, Wash.
Pilots volunteered and trained in Florida for what they only knew was "extremely hazardous." Navigator Griffin, from Green Bay, Wis., got top-secret briefings with pilot David Jones in Washington, just five months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
"We needed to hit back," recalled Griffin, now 95 and living near Cincinnati.
Once at sea, the rest learned targets — factories, plants, military facilities on mainland Japan. They knew the uncertainties: what if the Navy task force was attacked? What defenses would they face? And with B-25s unable to land on a carrier decks, could they reach friendly bases in China?
"We didn't know we were supposed to be afraid," summarized Saylor, 22 then.
The Raiders brushed aside Doolittle's assurances that anyone was free to withdraw.
"It was a mission in the war. We did what we were required to do," said Thatcher, of Missoula, Mont., age 90.
After encountering Japanese patrols, the raid launched ahead of plan, some 200 miles farther from shore for fuel-stretched bombers. Doolittle's plane took off first at 08:20 from a pitching carrier deck.
"It's the Charge of the Light Brigade," said historian Hugh Ambrose. "They know that a betting man would probably bet against them ... brave heroism in the face of an enemy that at that time was winning the war."
They flew low in radio silence, skimming seas and then treetops. Cole recalls the country song "Wabash Cannonball" running through his head. He tapped his foot in time until Doolittle shot him a questioning look.
They were greeted by anti-aircraft guns and puffs of black smoke. Flak shook planes.
"As we got there, there was no conversation, until the bombardier told Col. Doolittle that the initial bombing target was in sight," said Cole, who was in the lead plane. "At that point, Col. Doolittle said to open up the bomb bay doors."
The bombs dropped, "and we got the heck out of there."
The danger was just beginning. All 16 planes lacked enough fuel to reach bases and either crash-landed or ditched in dark, rough weather along China's coast south of Shanghai.
"The most scary time for me was standing in a plane at 9,000 feet, in the middle of a pretty bad storm, looking down into a black hole and ready to exit into the unknown," said Cole.
"I never learned how to swim," added a chuckling Saylor, who held onto a damaged raft. "I was raised on a cattle ranch out in Montana."
Thatcher was aboard the plane dubbed "The Ruptured Duck," which crash-landed into water. Pilot Ted Lawson's leg was badly broken, later amputated. They narrowly stayed ahead of Japanese searchers, who killed villagers suspected of helping the Americans.
"We had a lot of near-misses, when they raided places we had been the night before," said Griffin, now 95 and living near Cincinnati.
Eight Raiders were captured, and three executed. A fourth died in captivity. Three had died off China.
"The Chinese people were of immeasurable help to us," Cole reflected. "If it hadn't been for them, I wouldn't be alive today to tell you about this."
Although the Tokyo raid inflicted light damage compared to Pearl Harbor, it shook Japanese confidence and uplifted Americans, said Ambrose, author of "The Pacific."
"It was a symbolic act," he said. "It did wonders for the American people. It was just the sort of calling card that let people understand that ... yes, we're going to do it."
Surviving Raiders got new assignments. Ten more would die in the war.
The Raiders' postwar gatherings have become popular drawing cards for museums, air bases and other locales.
"Young people, parents and their grandparents are there to meet these gentlemen and hear their stories firsthand," Ambrose said. "It's a chance to experience living history ... It becomes a part of us."
Hite, 92, who survived Japanese captivity, had recent health issues, but the Odell, Texas, native and Nashville, Tenn., resident is expected to attend and join the toast.
"It's going to be special," said Griffin. "I can't help but think it's going to be our last big one."
Six years ago, there were still 16 survivors.
By plan, the last two Raiders living will someday make the final toast. They will sip from cognac vintage 1896 — the year Doolittle was born.
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force: http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/doolittle.asp
Contact the reporter at http://www.twitter.com/dansewell