A Veterans Day Celebration with the Doolittle Raiders

One of the few advantages of working in Washington is the occasional chance to do something special. Last Saturday night offered just such an opportunity. And, so, my wife and I attended the annual dinner of the American Veterans Center (AVC). The banquet room was filled with veterans who had participated in some of the greatest achievements of the American armed forces. That evening, we were in the middle of history.

AVC’s mission is to preserve and promote the legacy of America’s servicemen and women from every generation. And every great generation of the last 70 years was represented in that room. The AVC gave out its annual awards to deserving veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Iraq/Afghanistan conflict.

It has been almost 70 years since Lt. Colonel James Doolittle led 80 airmen in 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers in a momentous raid on the mainland of Japan. After the disaster at Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt wanted to land an early blow that would teach the Japanese they were not beyond our reach. Doolittle’s mission, flown off the USS Hornet, pushed the outer limits of the technology of the time. It was a success, but it was a one-way trip. The planes didn’t have the range to return to the Hornet and couldn’t land on a carrier. After hitting their target, the pilots continued on into China -- to crash land or bail out. All of the aircraft were lost, and 11 crewmen were killed.

Four of the five remaining Doolittle raiders -- including Richard Cole, Doolittle’s copilot -- were at the dinner. They all looked in remarkably good shape, given that they are in their 90s. They presented the first annual Doolittle Tokyo Raiders Award to General Richard Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and himself a Vietnam fighter pilot with over 600 combat hours.

The Audie Murphy Award (Murphy was the most decorated soldier of World War II, winning every medal the Army had to offer including the Congressional Medal of Honor) was given to two Army Rangers. They were representing the 2nd Ranger Battalion, one of the most famous battalions in American history. At Normandy, it was the 2nd Rangers who climbed the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc in the face of murderous machine gun fire from the Nazi defenders. It was humbling to be in the same room with two of these Rangers (sitting right behind us at the next table), who had put their lives on the line 67 years ago in a daring mission to take out the enemy guns covering the beaches where the Allies were landing.

The second Audie Murphy Award was given to Robert Maxwell, who saved his fellow soldiers in 1944 in Southern France by falling on a grenade that had landed in their observation post. He not only survived (although he was terribly wounded), but he won the Medal of Honor. Mr. Maxwell strode up to the stage to receive his award. He did not look like he was 91, or that he had been almost killed by a grenade when he was just a young man.