Eighty silver goblets for 80 brave airmen. Eighty years ago, these men flew 16 B-25B Mitchell medium bombers on a one-way trip to Tokyo as part of the Doolittle Raiders. Onboard the USS Hornet after the Pearl Harbor bombings, the men accepted the mission to bomb military and industrial targets in Japan, fully knowing they may not survive the raid.
Under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle (later promoted to Lieutenant General), these 16 heavily modified bombers, each with their 5-man crew, armed with three 500-pound bombs, headed to Japan to drop their bombs on Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe, and Osaka. While the mission had minimal success in destroying its targets, the raid was lauded and credited for boosting the morale of the United States Armed Forces and the general public. This ultimately helped the US and the allied forces win the war.
In celebration of their success, the Doolittle raiders would meet annually through reunions, with the first one being held in 1946. While the 80 men were never complete in these reunions, as 61 survived the war, each Doolittle raider had a silver goblet engraved with their names. These goblets were stored in a blue velvet case. During the first reunion, the raiders popped open a bottle of 1896 Hennessy VS cognac to celebrate the birth year of Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle.
Since then, they would raise their goblets every year to toast their success and commemorate those who passed in the previous year. Slowly as the decades passed, a silver goblet would permanently be turned upside down when stored in the case, signifying that the owner of the goblet had already passed. These upside-down goblets would soon dominate the case as time flew by, with each reunion featuring a smaller number each year.
When this year’s annual Doolittle raid came along, nobody from the raid was present. All of them had passed, with the final one being Lieutenant Colonel Richard “Dick” Cole, who was Doolittle’s co-pilot during the mission.
“To those who have gone,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said. The children of Cole were present during the ceremony, to which they took out their father’s goblet, turned it over for the final time, and returned it to the blue velvet casing.
Officially the end of a generation for these heroes. Their lives may have ended, but their heroism is forever remembered in the history books. The family of the raiders all bid their final farewell to their relatives, sending them off in the way they deserved.
Cole died last 2019 at the age of 103 and raised the last toast to his fellow raiders last 2017. In the later annual gatherings, he would be unable to attend due to his health and age. The COVID-19 pandemic also prevented the annual meetings from happening. Apart from being Doolittle’s co-pilot, he was also the one who built the blue velvet casing that the goblets are encased in.
It was an ending that was memorable for the family, to be honored in the military as they deserved. Doolittle and Cole were the first ones to try and take off from the carrier, which was extremely challenging during that time as the B-25s were designed to take off from conventional airstrips. With only less than 500 feet to work with, the raiders achieved a feat never done before by taking off successfully from the carrier with limited fuel.
The raiders had to strip their B-25s to make the bomber lighter so that it could take off. They removed the Norden bombsight (which was replaced with a light wire bombsight), which was needed for high altitude bombing, removed the liaison radio set, and installed a 160-gallon collapsible neoprene auxiliary fuel tank to increase fuel load. Perhaps the most notable removal was the rear guns. They were removed and replaced with wooden sticks, which were painted black.
As history would tell us, the raiders and the vessels accompanying them would be spotted by a Japanese picket boat patrol craft, the No. 23 Nitto Maru. The Japanese would then radio that there was an attack incoming, so the USS Nashville had to sink it. But the report had already gone through, which meant that they would have to launch the bombers immediately or else risk the mission altogether.
“Army pilots, man your planes!” Cole recalled the PA saying in an interview with HistoryNet.com.
So the raiders launched 10 hours earlier than the initial plan, over 200 miles farther from the initial launch point. This meant that they would have to carry extra fuel for them to be able to reach China. Those at the head of the pack, Doolittle, and Cole, only had 467 feet to take off. They almost hit the water due to the short runway.
The rest would be history. The bombers would go on to hit their targets, namely 10 in Tokyo, 2 in Yokohama, 1 in Yokosuka, 1 in Nagoya, 1 in Kobe, and 1 in Osaka. They did it with style too. The reports at that time claim that they managed to shoot down three Japanese fighters that they encountered. Perhaps the most surprising fact of all, those wooden sticks at the back of the aircraft would be effective as Doolittle said no Japanese plane attacked them from behind.
As mentioned earlier, not all 80 men would survive the mission as three were killed in action, eight were captured by the Japanese, one died in captivity, one died because of torture, and three were executed.
With the death of Cole, and the final silver goblet being turned over, we commemorate the raiders for their service to our country. They will never be forgotten. Aside from being written in the history books, the B-21 stealth bomber is also named after the Raiders, perfectly passing on their bravery to the next generation of bombers.