Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Congress, give Doolittle Raiders their medal

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 8:38 AM EST, Sun November 3, 2013
Bob Greene says the valorous fighter pilots led by James Doolittle, shown here, should get the Congressional Gold Medal.
Bob Greene says the valorous fighter pilots led by James Doolittle, shown here, should get the Congressional Gold Medal.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: The four remaining Doolittle Raiders are planning a final reunion on Saturday
  • Now in their 90s, the famed WWII bomber pilots will crack a bottle of fine cognac for a toast
  • For their perilous Tokyo mission, they deserve Congressional Gold Medal, he says
  • Greene: Frank Sinatra got one, why not them? Congress, can you at least do this right?

Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- "I think, when the moment finally comes, I'll probably have mixed feelings about it," Dick Cole said. "It will be like coming to the last page of a book you don't want to end. The book has been a good one, but you're sad that it's over."

He is 98 years old. He was part of a military unit whose valor is written indelibly on the pages of this nation's history. The Doolittle Raiders flew their "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" mission in April 1942, when, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, spirits in the United States were at a low point. The 80 Raiders, flying 16 bombers under the command of Jimmy Doolittle, showed the world that America would never give up.

"We had planned on waiting until there were only two of us left to open the bottle and have our final toast," Cole said. "But we don't want to wait any longer. As fragile as most of us are, it's time."

So, on Saturday, at the National Museum of the United States Air Force on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, the few Raiders who still are alive will open the bottle of 1896 Hennessy Very Special cognac -- 1896 was the year of Jimmy Doolittle's birth -- and raise a solemn toast to their crewmates who have died.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

"All 80 of us knew each other, from all our training missions," Cole said. "I can still close my eyes and see their faces, hear their voices. We were a pretty good team."

Pretty good? They were the finest and bravest warriors this nation had to offer. Cole was Doolittle's co-pilot in the first of the 16 planes to take off from the deck of the USS Hornet in the Pacific.

"We knew that we had just separated ourselves from civilization," he said. "There were no long-range radios in the planes. And, of course, there was no turning back."

There was a time when every schoolchild in the U.S. was taught about the courage of the Raiders. It was a true-life story the country knew by heart:

The U.S., after Pearl Harbor, was in terrible trouble in the Pacific. Launching a counterattack on Japan seemed impossible, because there were no U.S. airfields close enough. And then came the Doolittle Raiders, 80 volunteers with guts enough to thrill their countrymen.

They would fly 16 specially modified B-25s from the deck of the Hornet. Launching heavy bombers from a carrier had never been tried; returning to the ship was not an option. The plan was to hit Tokyo, then hope to make it safely to China.

But when there were reports on the day of the raid that Japan had learned of the mission, a decision was made: The planes had to take off from much farther out in the Pacific than had been anticipated. From that distance there was not enough fuel to get them to safety.

And those men took off anyway.

"I was scared, frightened -- just about any word you can think of that describes being apprehensive," Cole said. "But I knew I was flying with the best pilot in the world."

Doolittle's men hit Tokyo, then flew as far as they could. Eleven crews had to bail out; four crews crash-landed and one plane made it to Russia. Two Raiders died as they bailed out. Eight were captured by the Japanese; three of them were executed, and five were sentenced to life in prison. One died of starvation; the others were grievously mistreated for more than three years.

World War II vet's symphony performed
World War II widow receives surprise
WWII love letters: 'Hard to see you go'

When 2013 began, there were five surviving Raiders, but then Tom Griffin died. So now there are four: Dick Cole, Robert Hite, Edward Saylor and David Thatcher.

Their annual April reunions have come to an end. But even with all their somber and prayerful annual toasts to those they have lost, they have never opened the bottle of 1896 cognac. The Doolittle bottle.

Now, at the Air Force Museum, they will. It is unclear whether Robert Hite is in good enough health to make it to Dayton; the others plan to be there. This will be it, forever. When the bottle is opened, Cole said, "I know there will be tears, at least in my case."

He said he hopes that today's young Americans will take one lesson from what the Doolittle Raiders did:

"I would like for them to understand that there are times in one's life that require a lot of sacrifices. If you want to live free, you've got to make those sacrifices."

There is one piece of unfinished business:

Jimmy Doolittle, who died in 1993, was awarded the Medal of Honor. But the raid was not a one-man mission; Doolittle would have been the first to vociferously point that out.

Friends and admirers of the Raiders have been trying to persuade Congress, in recognition of the Raiders' contribution to this country, to award the entire 80-man squad not the Medal of Honor, but the Congressional Gold Medal, one of our nation's highest tributes. No one is asking for Congress to strike 80 gold medals -- just one, in the Raiders' name, while some of the crew are still alive.

You wouldn't think it would be difficult. The Congressional Gold Medal has been presented to, among others, Frank Sinatra and Arnold Palmer. You'd think the Doolittle Raiders would rate one.

And their supporters have gone about the request in the proper way. A bill asking for authorization of the medal was introduced in a bipartisan manner: A Democrat, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, introduced it in the Senate, and a Republican, Pete Olson of Texas, introduced it in the House.

Yet there it languishes. There are not enough co-sponsors in either chamber to get the medal authorized. The slowness seems to come not from any animosity, but from indifference. Congress has other things to do.

Meanwhile, the clock ticks on the Raiders. Cole is 98; Saylor and Hite are 94; Thatcher is 92. As Brian Anderson -- a friend and longtime admirer of the Raiders who has worked to get the medal authorized and has tried to get the attention of members of Congress -- said: "Time is not on the Raiders' side."

So those brave men will gather in Dayton next weekend for their final toast.

Before they do, here is a simple question for Congress:

Can you not even do this right?

The Doolittle Raiders have earned that medal. But it isn't the Raiders who should be grateful to be associated with Congress.

It is Congress that should be proud and grateful to be permitted to be associated with the Raiders.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 10:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 7:37 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 4:41 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT