Doolittle Raiders take to the sky

A B-25 Bomber flies over the celebration for five of the nine Doolittle Raiders' surviving members who were being honored at Colonial Life to begin a weekend of honoring the WWII heroes. This is a restored version of the plane they flew and worked with.
A B-25 Bomber flies over the celebration for five of the nine Doolittle Raiders' surviving members who were being honored at Colonial Life to begin a weekend of honoring the WWII heroes. This is a restored version of the plane they flew and worked with.

Dick Cole’s hands are worn with age but they were rock steady as he banked the vintage B-25B Mitchell over Lake Murray’s Bomb Island.

“Great view, isn’t it Colonel?” said Paul Nuwer, who along with owner Larry Kelley usually pilots the Delaware-based Mitchell, called Panchito.

“Just gorgeous,” said Cole, 92.

The view was quite different 67 years ago, when Cole was Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot on the famous Tokyo Raid.

Thursday’s flight, sponsored by the nonprofit Disabled American Veterans group, was one of the highlights of the day’s kickoff for the Raiders’ 67th anniversary reunion, which runs through Saturday in Columbia.

Cole still flies B-25s at events across the country.

“I do it whenever they invite me,” he said. “It’s still one of the greatest airplanes in the world.”

Cole and the other 80 Raiders volunteered for the mission while stationed briefly at the airport, then called Columbia Air Base.

Two months later, the men selected for the raid flew 16 B-25s off the rocking deck of the USS Hornet and bombed Japan in retaliation for Pearl Harbor.

It is the most famous air raid in United States history.

It also had consequences.

All of the planes were lost when they ditched in the China Sea or the crews bailed out over China. One, with Nolan Herndon of Edgefield, diverted to Russia. Two Raiders drowned when their plane ditched. Another Raider was killed when he bailed out.

Eight men were captured by the Japanese; three were executed, including Darlington’s William Farrow.

Farrow’s co-pilot on the raid, Robert Hite, endured 40 months of captivity and torture — 36 months in solitary confinement.

He survived and is one of four of the nine remaining Raiders celebrating the reunion in Columbia. A fifth Raider, William Bower, was expected to attend but could not because of an illness in the family.

Hite, too, took a spin in the Mitchell.

“Been in one before,” he said with a wink.

Raiders David Thatcher and Tom Griffin declined a flight in Panchito, which is outfitted with a homemade bombsight like those used on the raid. It was made and donated by the late Raider Horace “Sally” Crouch of Columbia.

“I spent enough time in those old, loud planes,” Griffin said.

But Griffin did ride in an open-cockpit Stearman biplane, which was used in World War II as a trainer.

“Great view of the neighborhood,” he said.

On Cole’s plane was State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex, who flew tail gunner.

“It made me appreciate even more what these heroes did,” Rex said. “This is no commercial airliner. We’re living a bit of history.”

The reunion, presented by the Celebrate Freedom Foundation, will include Panchito and other vintage aircraft and World War II displays at Eagle Aviation at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport on Saturday. The event is free.

The flights capped off Thursday’s events, which included a welcoming ceremony and flyover at Colonial Life headquarters in Columbia. Colonial Life is one of the companies sponsoring the reunion.

The Raiders received gifts from Columbia City Council member Daniel Rickenmann on behalf of the city; the key to the city of West Columbia from Mayor Bobby Horton; and a proclamation courtesy of Gov. Mark Sanford. They also were welcomed by U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson and Tom Watjen, president and CEO of Colonial Life parent company Unum Group.

“They were the beginning of the Greatest Generation,” Horton said. “They set the example of courage that the rest followed.”

The goblets used in the Raiders’ famous toast were on display at Colonial Life. Each year but two since 1946, the surviving Raiders have met to toast their comrades who passed away the previous year.

Video | Doolittle Raiders take to the sky

Today, they will be toasting Gen. Davy Jones, pilot of Plane No. 2, and Master Sgt. Edwin Horton Jr., who passed away a day apart in November.

The very private and emotional toast has only been conducted in public once — at the 60th reunion, held in Columbia in 2002.

The 80 silver vessels were a gift of the city of Tucson in 1959. They are engraved with the names of each Raider twice, right side up and upside down. When a Raider dies, his goblet is turned upside down in the special case used to house them.

The goblets once were held at the U.S. Air Force Academy, constantly guarded by cadets.

Today, they are on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. When they travel, a detachment of cadets is always with them.

One of the guards Thursday was cadet Meghan Wildner, granddaughter of the late Raider Carl Wildner, navigator on Plane No. 2.

“I had never seen it before,” she said as she stood at attention with her fellow guard. “It’s a thrill and an honor.”

Reach Wilkinson at (803) 771-8495.

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