Descendents of Doolittle Raiders celebrate alongside the war heroes

jwilkinson@thestate.comApril 19, 2009 

  • The Columbia connection

    The 80 Doolittle Raiders formed as a group in Columbia, while training at what is now the Columbia Metropolitan Airport. Survivors gather each year to remember their 1942 raid over Tokyo. This year, as in 1992 and 2002, they are in Columbia.

For Todd Joyce of Louisville, Neb., the annual Doolittle Raiders reunion is more than just a gathering of old warriors.

It’s a family reunion.

Joyce is the son of the late Raider Dick Joyce, pilot of Plane No. 10 and crew mate with the late Raider Horace “Sally” Crouch of Columbia.

He was one of about 40 Raider children and grandchildren who traveled to Columbia from across the nation for this week’s 67th anniversary reunion of his father’s famous Tokyo Raid.

“We would find it real hard to sit home on April 18,” Joyce said.

On that date in 1942, the 80 Raiders flew 16 Army bombers off a Navy carrier and bombed Japan just four months after Pearl Harbor. It is the most famous air raid in U.S. history.

Each year but two since 1946, the Raiders and their families have gathered to remember those who have passed, drink a toast to those who died in the past year and catch up with what they refer to as their extended family.

This year’s reunion, sponsored by the Celebrate Freedom Foundation, was the third in Columbia. The Raiders volunteered for their mission at the old Columbia Air Base, now Columbia Metropolitan Airport, and because of that, feel a special bond with the city, Joyce said.

While the Raiders drew thousands to an air show and autograph session on Saturday, family members were everywhere, quietly working behind the scenes or just enjoying the day.

Cindy Cole Chai of Comfort, Texas, daughter of Raider Dick Cole, worked the merchandise table along with John Griffin of Murray, Ky., son of Raider Tom Griffin, proud that their parents are still being honored for their heroism.

Tom Griffin keeps a full public schedule back in Cincinnati where he lives, his son said, and it helps keep him young.

“He could just sit back and watch television,” said John Griffin, 67. “But the reception he gets is always so overwhelming. And he loves it. It has really helped him since the death of my mother.”

Cities usually vie for the honor of hosting the Raiders. They are wined, dined, feted and flown for free from coast to coast each year.

The children would also be the beneficiaries of that attention.

“We got into some trouble,” remembered Beverly Daigle, 64, of New Orleans, who was visiting Columbia with siblings Barbara Lewis of Dallas, Connie Townsend of Cocodrie, La., and Tommy Bourgeois of Kingsport, Tenn.

They are the children of the late Raider Robert C. Bourgeois, bombardier of Plane No. 13.

Beverly remembers a $400 room service tab the four rang up in a Los Angeles hotel in the 1960s. “We thought, ‘This is Hollywood!’ Oh, well.’”

Gen. Davy Jones, who led the Raiders after Jimmy Doolittle’s death in 1990s, used to have a special greeting for their hosts each year, John Griffin remembered.

“He would say, ‘We’re the world’s greatest freeloaders. Thanks for having us!’”

Jones died last year, along with Master Sgt. Ed Horton Jr. Only nine Raiders are still alive. Jones and Horton were toasted by the four Raiders in attendance and their families in a legendary but very private tribute held behind close doors at the Columbia Marriott on Thursday morning.

The toast was made with silver goblets donated by the city of Tucson in 1959 that are always guarded by at least two cadets from the U.S. Air Force Academy.

This year one of those cadets was Meghan Wildner, granddaughter of the late Raider Carl Wildner, navigator on Plane No. 2.

She handed the goblets to Raiders Dick Cole, Robert Hite, David Thatcher and Griffin.

“I was nervous; I didn’t want to spill it,” she said. “It was very emotional. It was touching, for sure.”

Joyce said the Raider children and grandchildren will keep meeting on April 18 each year, even after the last of the old heroes has raised his glass.

“We won’t draw crowds and we won’t sign autographs, but we’ll be with our extended families,” he said. “It’s a way to give back, share memories and remember.”

Reach Wilkinson at (803) 771-8495.

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