EGLIN AFB — Tuesday's death of retired Air Force Lt. Col. Richard "Dick" Cole, the last surviving Doolittle Raider, will bring a special poignance to an upcoming reunion of families of the 80 Army Air Corps volunteers who flew the daring and dangerous World War II mission to bomb Japan.
The reunion, open to the public, will include an auction of Doolittle Raiders memorabilia to support the charitable work of the nonprofit Children of the Doolittle Raiders, the group hosting the event.
The reunion and auction is set for 5 p.m. April 18 at the Air Force Armament Museum. It will also include a toast to the Doolittle Raiders, a regular feature of the Raiders' own reunions over the years.
The event is sponsored by the Eglin Federal Crecit Union with support from Hennessy, maker of the cognac with which the Raiders toasted themselves and the fallen comrades.
"I think it'll be a little more somber," Jeff Thatcher, president of Children of the Doolittle Raiders, said of the upcoming event. Thatcher is the son of Staff Sgt. David Thatcher, a Doolittle Raider who died in 2016, leaving Cole as the group's last survivor.
Launching from the U.S.S. Hornet in the Pacific Ocean on April 18, 1942, the Raiders, led by then-Lt. Col. James Doolittle, flew 16 B-25 bombers hundreds of miles to bomb a number of Japanese cities. The raid inflicted minimal damage, but barely four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it showed that Japan was not beyond the reach of American air power.
In recent years, as the number of Doolittle Raiders declined, the families decided to form the Children of the Doolittle Raiders to keep the legacy of the airmen alive. As part of its work, the group funds college scholarships for Doolittle Raider descendants and holds an essay contest each year in Quzhou, China, where some of the Doolittle Raiders were sheltered after bailing out of their aircraft.
Students at Quzhou Middle School are invited each year to write about the Doolittle Raiders, with winning essays earning cash awards. Last year, all participating students earned a cash prize, Thatcher said.
Cole had been slated to deliver the toast at the upcoming event before he died earlier this week at the age of 103 in San Antonio, Texas. Over the years, Cole had been a frequent visitor to this area, where he and the other Doolittle Raiders trained for their mission at what was then Eglin Field.
"We will soldier on, in the best tradition we know, to continue to honor the Raiders," Thatcher said.
Items up for auction at the anniversary toast will include memorabilia donated by descendants and feature letters, books and art prints signed by individual Raiders, Thatcher said. Some items will be offered at a silent auction scheduled from 5-6:15 p.m., with larger items in a live auction beginning at 6:30 p.m.
In a somewhat related development, the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Ohio's Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is working with the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders Association, a nonprofit group that provides a $5,000 scholarship to a college student studying aerospace science or engineering, to make arrangements for the final "Goblet Turn-Over Ceremony."
Since 1959, the Raiders have used a set of 80 silver goblets provided to them by the city of Tucson, Arizona, to toast themselves and their fallen comrades. The goblets are engraved with the names of the Raiders, and at each reunion, the Raiders turned upside-down the goblets of the Raiders who had died since the last reunion.
In 2005, the surviving Raiders decided to make the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force the permanent home of the goblets, for which Cole built a velvet-lined display case to transport them to reunions.
As the last Raider, none of his fellow airmen is around to turn over Cole's goblet. In an email, Diana Bachert, chief of public affairs at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, said no date has been set for the turning over of Cole's goblet. However, the ceremony "will be held at the museum and an appropriate representative designated by the Director of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force will turn over Col. Cole’s goblet," she wrote.