Raider legends come to life

Heroes sign autographs with gentle humility

04/18/2009 12:01 AM

02/28/2013 1:48 PM

In March, 10-year-old Sara Mar read a book called “Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society,” a fictional account of a Chinese family who helps rescue Doolittle Raider David Thatcher during World War II.

She loved it. So her father, Peter, drove her 14 hours from their home in Toronto to Columbia to see her new hero in person.

Sara not only got to meet Thatcher, but got hugs, autographs and books. She also made new friends, who just happen to be some of the most famous aviators on the planet.

“Oh, my gosh,” she said, clutching her new treasures. “That was s-o-o-o awesome. It was amazing.”

Sara and her father were among hundreds who lined up at the Columbia Marriott to get autographs and shake hands with four of the nine surviving Raiders. The four are in Columbia this weekend celebrating the 67th anniversary reunion of their bombing raid on Tokyo. The reunion is sponsored by the Celebrate Freedom Foundation.

Most of the crowd were either dignitaries — heavy with military brass — who attended a luncheon with the Raiders earlier in the day, or collectors seeking valuable autographs for models, books and photographs.

Nick Alvarez of Charlotte was first in line. He arrived at 8 a.m. for the 2 p.m. session.

It’s nothing new. He travels the country to air shows and military reunions.

“I just got bit by the aviation bug,” he said, holding a model of the Raiders’ B-25B Mitchell bomber. “Now I can’t stop collecting. And this was just an hour away from home.”

The Raiders participated in the most famous air raid in American history when they flew their Army bombers off a Navy aircraft carrier and bombed Japan just four months after Pearl Harbor

At the luncheon, Rear Adm. John W. Goodwin, a USC graduate and assistant chief of naval operations, drew parallels between then and now.

He noted that the Raiders lifted Americans’ spirits and offered some serious payback after Pearl Harbor.

“American fighting men and women answered the same call just 28 days after 9/11” when they began bombing Afghanistan, he said.

The Raiders received a gift from those modern warriors in the form of Maj. Gen. William “Dutch” Holland, deputy commander of U.S. Air Forces Central, which oversees air operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On bended knee at each autograph table, Holland presented the Raiders with a 9th Air Force “challenge coin” and whispered thanks for their service.

The troops fighting today “are living the legacy you established 67 years ago,” he said.

The honors were appreciated. But it was the kids in the crowd, like Sara, who brought a smile to Raiders’ business manager Tom Casey sometimes harried face.

“They are what it’s all about,” he said. “They don’t teach this stuff in school anymore. So it’s really nice to know that some kids still get it.”

Sara’s awed smile made Thatcher’s day.

“That was great,” he said after spending time with the little girl and posing for pictures. “That makes it special.”

Reach Wilkinson at (803) 771-8495.

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