I’m a sucker for a war story. And if it’s a World War II war story . . . pass the tissues.
The Greatest Generation sits on a pedestal in my book.
Last week, I had the opportunity to walk through the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. I love history, but aviation history . . . meh. But my son was all fired up about the World War II exhibit. The things we do for our children. So I started walking . . .
Old plane. Old plane. Big plane. Little plane. Plane with dots. Plane with spots. Bunch of silver wine goblets.
Wait. What? Wine goblets!? This just got interesting.
I realize they look like handbells from a church choir in this photo. Stay with me . . .
After trying to coax a decent picture out of my iPhone camera, I spent the next half an hour reading about Doolittle’s Raid and the 80 sterling silver wine goblets standing in front of me.
The Doolittle Raid in April of 1942 marked the first time US forces struck Japanese “home” islands in WWII. The raids showed that Japan, too, was vulnerable to attack, and gave US forces a much needed morale boost. Not to mention a little retaliation for Pearl Harbor.
How’d they pull it off? With no friendly airfields close enough to Japan to launch an attack, sixteen US Army Air Forces B-25 bombers were modified so they could be launched from an aircraft carrier. Launching a bomber off an aircraft carrier in 1942 was one part crazy and two parts cajones. The plan was to bomb strategic targets in Japan and then land in China . . . because they wouldn’t have enough fuel to return to the Hornet.
Let that sink in for a minute. They wouldn’t have enough fuel to return. That’s a one-way ticket. And 80 men volunteered for the mission. 80 crazy men with cajones.
The Japanese got a whiff of the plan, so the pilots were told they would have to launch from even farther out in the Pacific Ocean and execute their raid without the cover of darkness. Reaching China for any kind of landing, crash or otherwise, would be . . . unlikely. They went anyway.
They went anyway.
And so on April 18, 1942, 16 aircraft were launched from the USS Hornet in the Pacific, with 5 crew members aboard each. All 16 aircraft hit their targets in Japan. And against all kinds of craptastical odds, 15 aircraft reached China and one made it to the Soviet Union. All but 3 of the crew survived the crash landings. 8 crew members were captured by the Japanese in China, and three of those men were executed. And btw, the Japanese killed over 250,000 (yes, that comma is in the right place) Chinese civilians as reprisal for sheltering the American pilots. Twelve of the surviving Raiders would be killed in action later in World War II. All in all, 62 Raiders survived the war.
In 1944, MGM made a movie about the raid — Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, starring Spencer Tracey. That’s going in my Netflix queue.
In April of 1946, General James “Jimmy” Doolittle and his Raiders gathered to commemorate the raid and remember the fallen Raiders. That event became an annual reunion and remembrance. In 1959, the city of Tuscon, Arizona commissioned 80 sterling silver goblets to honor the men of Doolittle’s Raid. Each goblet is engraved with the name of one of Doolittle’s Raiders. The names are engraved on each goblet twice, so they can be read right side up or upside down.
At every reunion, surviving Raiders have a Goblet Ceremony. They offer a toast: “To the men who gave their all in the success of our mission, and to those who have joined them since.” They then turn the deceased’s goblet upside down (making it look more like a hand-bell). The symbolism gives me chills. The original plan was for the last two Raiders to drink the bottle of 1896 Hennessy VSOP Cognac stored in the middle of the goblet case (special because it is the year of James Doolittle’s birth) . . . and raise a final toast their fallen comrades.
In a Circle of Life moment, the Raiders held their last public reunion this April, at Eglin AFB in Florida (Eglin was where the Raiders trained in secret for their mission in 1942). Three of the four remaining Raiders were able to attend, and they turned over one more goblet — another Raider gone, but not forgotten.
With advancing age and difficulties traveling, the four remaining Raiders have decided they will meet sometime later this year to drink the last toast in a private ceremony, away from trespassing eyes. A final moment in solitude . . . to remember.
And so, as I stood there in front of 80 sterling silver sentinels, drenched in history and symbolism . . . my eyeballs started leaking. Naturally, that was the exact moment my teenage son decided to catch up to me. “Why are you crying about wine glasses, Mom? Did the wine spill or something?”.
“They’re not just wine glasses . . . they’re heroes. And I’m not crying . . . I’m saying thank you.”