In 1942, 80 airmen arrived at Eglin Air Force Base to train for the first U.S. attack on Japan after Pearl Harbor. Led by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, the secretive and daring mission, which became known as the Doolittle Raid, boosted Americans’ morale in what would become a hard-fought journey toward victory in World War II.
This week, three of the four Doolittle Raiders who are still alive are returning to Fort Walton Beach — back to where it all started — for their 71st and final reunion, and they are bringing hundreds of family members, friends and fans with them for a week packed full of celebratory events.
“This community is pretty close to their hearts,” said the Raiders’ manager, Tom Casey. “Seventy-one years ago, this is where their mission, one of the most important missions of World War II and the first strike at Japan, this is where the training for it took place.”
The Raiders who survived have gathered in locations across the country almost every year since their B-25s scattered bombs over Tokyo on April 2, 1942, but their numbers continue to dwindle. They decided to make this year’s official reunion their last.
Lt. Col. Richard E. Cole, 97, Lt. Col. Edward Saylor, 95, and Staff Sgt. David J. Thatcher, 92, plan to attend. Lt. Col. Robert L. Hite, 95, is ill and can’t make it.
The event will be a final opportunity for the Northwest Florida community and visitors from across the country to pay tribute to these war heroes, said Ted Corcoran, president of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, which is organizing the event.
“There are very few times in a person’s life when there is an opportunity you know in advance you will never have again,” he said. “This is one that none of us want to miss.”
The Raiders’ reunions have become a much-celebrated affair over the years. They’ve drawn crowds and some celebrities, including the likes of Bob Hope and Jimmy Stewart.
This reunion will be attended by an unprecedented number of Doolittle family members. At least 200 plan to be in town, with at least one family member from each of the 16 crews that carried out the raid on April 18, 1942.
“When people found out this was their final reunion, family members who have never gone to a reunion or perhaps a great-grandson who didn’t even know he was related to a Raider, they decided to come,” said Wes Fields, who lives in Fort Walton Beach and has acted as security manager for the Raiders for more than 10 years. “They want to come and pay their respects.”
The Raiders also have a fan base, people who travel across the country attending as many reunions as they can. Fields likened them to Raider groupies.
‘Where it all started’
The Raiders have a packed schedule for their time in Northwest Florida. In addition to ticketed events, the Raiders will make appearances at different locations in the area, including trips to local military bases.
Several free public events will allow the general public a chance to meet the Raiders or come out to show their support.
The Raiders will be available for autographs at the Air Armament Museum on Wednesday and Friday. It will be on a first-come, first-served basis, so those who want to make sure they get a chance to meet the Raiders are encouraged to show up early to wait in line, Corcoran said.
On Friday evening, there will be a fly-by on Okaloosa Island featuring B-25s and other World War II-era aircraft.
On Saturday morning, a Parade of Heroes will march down Eglin Parkway featuring the Raiders, veterans and active-duty military members. A crawfish boil will follow the parade at Uptown Station.
A handful of tickets are still available for lunches with the Raiders at the Northwest Florida Fairgrounds Thursday and Friday. Saturday’s dinner at the Northwest Florida Fairgrounds featuring Gen. Mark Welsh, chief of staff for the Air Force, is sold out.
The lunch on Friday will be in honor of Raider family members and all World War II veterans. A handful of complimentary tickets are still available for local World War II veterans and their guest.
For information about remaining tickets for any of the events, call the Chamber of Commerce at 244-8191.
All proceeds from the event will go to fund a $20,000 scholarship in the Doolittle name at Northwest Florida State College, five $1,000 scholarships for ROTC students at local high schools and the Fisher House.
Fields, 52, said he got involved with the Raiders after becoming good friends with Raider Ed Horton, who lived in Fort Walton Beach until his death in 2008. Fields plans to take the Raiders to visit Horton’s grave while they are in town.
As a retired Air Force master sergeant, Fields said he looks at the Raiders and thinks about how young and brave they were when they took off on their dangerous and potentially ill-fated mission.
“It’s an honor just to be around them and do things to help them,” he said.
Fort Walton Beach is the perfect location to bring the reunion tradition to an end, he said.
“We are bringing them home,” he said. “Now that they’ve decided to make this their final reunion, this is where it should be. It’s where it all started.”
--Lauren Sage Reinlie
Five historic B-25s land in Destin Airport:
History buffs will be ecstatic – aviation enthusiasts will be thrilled – the general public will be captivated. Those are the great reactions to be expected when five lovingly restored, airworthy B-25 Mitchell bombers visit the Destin Airport in conjunction with the activities for the 71st Doolittle Raiders Anniversary Reunion in Fort Walton Beach.
There are only about 32 of these great birds still flying in the world – out of a production run of nearly 10,000 manufactured between 1940 and 1945. The last military flights of B-25s were in 1958. General Jimmy Doolittle and his Raiders used these planes for their famous Tokyo Raid in April of 1942, which is considered by historians to be a real turning point for American morale during the Second World War.
The planes will be displayed at the Destin Airport from Wednesday, April 17 through Sunday, April 21, and will be available for flights for the general public. The cost is $425 to experience the thrill of flying in the very same type of plane that helped the Allies win the war.
They will also participate in “Thirty Seconds Over the Emerald Coast,” a flyby on Friday, April 19, at 6 pm. The B-25s and other historic aircraft will fly over the beaches of Okaloosa Island. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see these historic planes over the very same sands where they flew during the Raiders’ training at Eglin Field in March of 1942. The prime viewing location for this event will be the Boardwalk on Okaloosa Island, where many of the restaurants and shops will be offering specials.
The planes will also fly in formation over the “Parade of Heroes” on Saturday, April 20, at 11:00 am. This community salute to the military is the first of its kind in our area. It will feature veterans and active duty personnel from World War II and subsequent conflicts, with the Doolittle Raiders as grand marshals. They will be followed by their WWII comrades, and veterans from the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War, the Gulf Wars, and active duty personnel. The community is invited to participate in this grand celebration of our military heritage. Beach Community Bank will distribute American flags to all the parade spectators. Contact the FWB Chamber at 850.244.8191 for more information.
The five planes in attendance at the Reunion will be: Panchito (Georgetown, DE), Killer B (Douglas, GA), Yellow Rose (San Marcos, TX); Georgie’s Gal (Port Clinton, OH); and Special Delivery (Galveston, TX), the only one to sport the famous Doolittle Raiders crest.
“This may be the last large gathering of B-25s in one place because this is the final public Raiders reunion,” said Larry Kelley, from the Delaware Aviation Museum and Panchito pilot. “It’s very expensive to fly them from one location to another, and this may be the last time the public will be able to see more than one in the same place.”
No reservations are necessary- arrangements may be made with the individual pilots at the airport. Go to the small tents that will be clearly identifiable at the airport – you’ll be directed to your ride from there.
The visit of the B-25s to our area is sponsored by the Emerald Coast Tourism Development Department, Cox, and Northwest Florida Regional Airport. Beach Community Bank is the presenting sponsor of the 71st Doolittle Raiders Anniversary Reunion – “The Final Tribute,” and reunion events are organized by the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, with the support of ResortQuest by Wyndham Vacation Rentals, Image Printing and Digital Services, Lockheed Martin, and the Northwest Florida Daily News.
--Special to The Log
Here is the schedule of public events for the 71st Doolittle Raiders Anniversary Reunion:
Wednesday, April 17
9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. — B-25s on display (free) and available for flights ($425) at Destin Airport.
9 a.m. to 10 a.m. — Doolittle Raiders Exhibit dedication, Northwest Florida State College Raiders Arena. Free. Doors open at 8 a.m.
1:15 p.m. to 2 p.m. — News conference, Air Armament Museum.
2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. — Meet the Raiders autograph session, Air Armament Museum. Free.
Thursday, April 18
9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. — B-25s on display (free) and available for flights ($425) at Destin Airport.
11:15 a.m. to 2 p.m. — Public lunch, Northwest Florida Fairgrounds. Guest speaker: Rear Adm. Don Quinn, NAS Pensacola. Historical presentations by C.V. Glines and Frank Goldstein. Raiders Q&A. Limited number of tickets may still be available. Call 244-8191.
Friday, April 19
11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. — B-25s on display (free) and available for flights ($425) at Destin Airport.
11 a.m. to 1 p.m. — Raider family luncheon honoring World War II veterans. Guest speakers: C.V. Glines and Gen. Gary North. Limited number of tickets may still be available. Limited number of free tickets for local World War II veterans plus their guest. Call 244-8191.
2 p.m. to 4 p.m. — Meet the Raiders autograph session, Air Armament Museum. Free.
6 p.m. — “Thirty Seconds Over the Emerald Coast: A Salute to the Raiders Fly-By,” featuring B-25s and other World War II aircraft, Okaloosa Island.
Saturday, April 20
8 a.m. to 10 a.m. — B-25s on display (free) at Destin Airport.
11 a.m. — Parade of Heroes, Fort Walton Beach. Eglin Parkway from First Street to Hughes Street. 9 a.m. lineup for participants.
11 a.m. to 3 p.m. — Crawfish Boil at Uptown Station, Fort Walton Beach.
12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. — B-25s on display (free) and available for flights ($425) at Destin Airport.
5:30 p.m. — Victory Celebration Dinner, Northwest Florida Fairgrounds. Guest speaker: Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh. Sold out.
Sunday, April 21
9 a.m. to 1 p.m. — B-25s on display (free) and available for flights ($425) at Destin Airport.