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Doolittle Raiders share one last toast

The Doolittle Raiders flew into the history books during their historic sneak attack on Japan. It was a successful mission, but nearly all 16 planes crash landed in China. Since then, the Doolittle Raiders have gathered each year to toast those who died. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports.

By Jim Miklaszewski, Correspondent, NBC News

DAYTON, Ohio -- In April 1942, the United States was still reeling from the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. military was desperate to strike back, and the American people were in search of a hero.  The legendary Jimmy Doolittle and his Tokyo Raiders answered the call.

As a boy, 98-year-old Dick Cole of Comfort, Texas, dreamed of becoming a military combat pilot.  When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor he was already a pilot in the Army Air Corps, but when he volunteered for an unspecified “dangerous mission” he soon found himself in the cockpit as Jimmy Doolittle’s copilot.  The mission: an air raid over Tokyo.  A mission so dangerous, Doolittle gave his men the chance to back out.

“But nobody jumped ship, nobody backed out,” Cole told NBC News. “You were in to stay.”

Richard Cole, one of the surviving  members of the "Doolittle Raiders" who flew a risky bombing mission over Japan, recounted the operation to NBC's Jim Miklaszewski.

The mission itself sounded impossible.  Without any advance testing or training, 16 full-sized B-25 bombers with a total of 80 crew members were to take off from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet.  When airborne they would skim the water at 200 feet to avoid radar, fly over Japan and drop their bombs on Tokyo and five other industrial centers.  Since the B-25’s could not land on the carrier, they were to fly to China to land in friendly territory.  

The bombing run was a success, but the Raiders encountered a severe storm front on approach to China. Hearing the planes overhead, the Chinese military feared they were Japanese warplanes and ordered a total blackout on the ground.  Flying blind in a storm, and running out of fuel, the American crews bailed out of their planes.  Three crew members were killed and almost all the 16 bombers crash-landed in China.  Today Cole admits he was slightly injured when he bailed out.  

“I pulled the ripcord so hard I gave myself a black eye,” he said. 

While the U.S. airstrikes did little lasting damage to the Japanese military infrastructure, American officials at the time declared it was a huge moral victory.  They felt it dramatically demonstrated Japan was vulnerable -- and following Pearl Harbor it gave the American people a much-needed shot in the arm.

This Veteran’s Day weekend, however, has been bittersweet for Cole and the three other Doolittle Tokyo Raiders who are still alive today: Robert Hite, 93, Edward Saylor, 93, and David Thatcher, 92.  For 68 years they have gathered to raise a toast to all Raiders who died before them.  Each Doolittle Raider has his name inscribed upon his own silver goblet, which is turned over upon death. 

Because of their age, the four living Raiders decided this would be their last toast.  At Doolittle’s wish, they used a bottle of cognac, distilled in 1896, the year of Doolittle’s birth.  Thousands turned out at the National Air Force Museum outside Dayton, Ohio, to honor them.

For Cole, this was the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders' final mission.  

“The story has run its course," he said, marking the end of a long tradition. "It’s time to tie things up and ride off into the sunset.”