When I was growing up in Edgefield, my parents told me that a man who lived nearby, Nolan Herndon, had been one of the Doolittle’s Raiders.
They said it so solemnly that I figured it had to be something more impressive than a ’70’s rock band.
I didn’t really get it until I was invited to the celebration of the Raiders reunion in 2002. Columbia, a key place in their training, was the host city two more times after that.
I learned then that these 80 airmen would always be Raiders and had sworn to take part in yearly reunions to lift a special personalized goblet of cognac to toast each other for daring to volunteer for an air strike at far away Tokyo. It was America’s response to Japan’s surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor. The outcome — and their survival — was uncertain.
Later I got to interview Horace “Sally” Crouch, had dinner with him and talked about the mission. It was hard to imagine that this down-to-earth guy, a Columbia native, helped knock Japan off balance in World War II, which changed the direction of the war and re-ignited American optimism when it was needed most. It sounds amazing, like the script for a movie trailer. It was and it was. Books, movies, and documentaries have retold the story.
This weekend, the four remaining survivors made their final toast, and it was much earlier than planned. Three of them met at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. A bottle of 1896 cognac had been reserved for the last two living to drink a toast together, but here will be no more reunions, including the one scheduled for this spring.
Just as in the raid, the end is uncertain, so they decided to stand now and honor each other with dignity.
“We didn’t want to get a city all excited and plan and get everything set up for a reunion, and end up with no people because of our age,” Lt. Col. Richard Cole told CBS news. Cole is the oldest survivor at 98 — and was Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot. The others are:Lt. Col. Robert Hite, 93;Staff Sgt. David Thatcher, 92;Lt. Col. Edward Saylor, 93.
The men I knew, Herndon and Crouch, have died.
Now, volunteers in Columbia are working to restore a Doolittle-era hangar and B-25 at Owens Field.
My two little boys have agreed with me that we should donate to its preservation.They don’t know why, just that when I tell them about it, I say it so solemnly that they know that it has to be something more impressive than a video game.