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DAYTON, Ohio – Known as the Doolittle Raiders, the 80 men who risked their lives on a World War II bombing mission on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor were toasted one last time by their surviving comrades and honored with a Veterans Day weekend of fanfare shared by thousands.
Three of the four surviving Raiders attended the toast Saturday at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. Their late commander, Lt. Gen. James "Jimmy" Doolittle, started the tradition but they decided this autumn's ceremony would be their last.
"May they rest in peace," Lt. Col. Richard Cole, 98, said before he and fellow Raiders — Lt. Col. Edward Saylor, 93, and Staff Sgt. David Thatcher, 92 — sipped cognac from specially engraved silver goblets. The 1896 cognac was saved for the occasion after being passed down from Doolittle.
Hundreds invited to the ceremony, including family members of deceased Raiders, watched as the three each called out "here" as a historian read the names of all 80 of the original airmen.
The fourth surviving Raider, Lt. Col. Robert Hite, 93, couldn't travel to Ohio because of health problems.
But son Wallace Hite said his father, wearing a Raiders blazer and other traditional garb for their reunions, made his own salute to the fallen with a silver goblet of wine at home in Nashville, Tenn., earlier in the week.
Hite is the last survivor of eight Raiders who were captured by Japanese soldiers. Three were executed; another died in captivity.
A B-25 bomber flyover helped cap an afternoon memorial tribute in which a wreath was placed at the Doolittle Raider monument outside the museum. Museum officials estimated some 10,000 people turned out for Veterans Day weekend events honoring the 1942 mission credited with rallying American morale and throwing the Japanese off balance.
Acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning said America was at a low point, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and other Axis successes, before "these 80 men who showed the nation that we were nowhere near defeat." He noted that all volunteered for a mission with high risks throughout, from the launch of B-25 bombers from a carrier at sea, the attack on Tokyo, and lack of fuel to reach safe bases.
The Raiders have said they didn't realize at the time that their mission would be considered an important event in turning the war's tide. It inflicted little major damage physically, but changed Japanese strategy while firing up Americans.
"It was what you do ... over time, we've been told what effect our raid had on the war and the morale of the people," Saylor said in an interview.
The Brussett, Mont., native who now lives in Puyallup, Wash., said he was one of the lucky ones.
"There were a whole bunch of guys in World War II; a lot of people didn't come back," he said.
Thatcher, of Missoula, Mont., said the raid just seemed like "one of many bombing missions" during the war. The most harrowing part for him was the crash landing of his plane, depicted in the movie "Thirty Seconds over Tokyo."
Cole, of Comfort, Texas, was Doolittle's co-pilot that day. Three crew members died as Raiders bailed out or crash-landed their planes in China, but most were helped to safety by Chinese villagers and soldiers.
Cole, Saylor and Thatcher were greeted Saturday by flag-waving well-wishers ranging from small children to fellow war veterans. Twelve-year-old Joseph John Castellano's grandparents brought him from their Dayton home.
"This was Tokyo. The odds of their survival were one in a million," the boy said. "I just felt like I owe them a few short hours of the thousands of hours I will be on Earth."
Organizers said more than 600 people, including descendants of Chinese villagers who helped the Raiders and Pearl Harbor survivors, were invited to the final-toast ceremony.
The 80 silver goblets in the ceremony were presented to the Raiders in 1959 by the city of Tucson, Ariz. The Raiders' names are engraved twice, the second upside-down. During the ceremony, white-gloved cadets presented each of the three with their personal goblets and their longtime manager poured the cognac. The deceased's glasses are turned upside-down.
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