Giants Still Walk Among Us
I read that the Doolittle Raiders recently held their 71st and final reunion. While Memorial Day is dedicated to those who died while serving in the Armed Forces, I wanted to take the occasion to remind us all that we are about to lose our remaining WWII veterans to the undefeatable enemy of age. For the moment, these giants still walk among us.
The Doolittle Raiders
After the raid on Pearl Harbor the United States military was in fearful disarray. The Pacific Fleet had been crippled with the destruction of most of its battleships, but the aircraft carriers survived. Lieutenant Colonel James "Jimmy" Doolittle formulated a daring plan to stage an attack on Tokyo itself. The key to the plan was the launching of B-25 land-based bombers from the deck of the USS Hornet. The planes did not have the range to return to the carrier, so they were to fly on to land in friendly airfields in China. The planes had to launch 10 hours and 170 nautical miles ahead of schedule because of a sighting of the Hornet by a Japanese picket boat. The crews knew that they probably couldn't reach their intended landing fields, but they proceeded anyway. Oh by the way – none of the pilots had ever previously launched from an aircraft carrier.
The raid did little real damage to Tokyo, but it was a huge morale-builder for a fearful nation. The willingness of the Doolittle Raiders to embark on a risky mission showed Americans that the Japanese were not invincible.
The Doolittle Raiders recently held their 71st reunion. Four of the remaining five survivors attended. Due to the toll of age, they agreed that this reunion would be their last.
The Tuskeegee Airmen
Last summer I watched the movie “Red Tails,” which is based on the true story of the Tuskeegee airman in the 332nd Fighter Group. “Red Tails” is a big-budget film produced by George Lucas. Since there are very few remaining WWII aircraft, most of the aerial scenes are done in CGI – and they are stunning.
Before I saw the movie I read a review that was somewhat negative. Its take was that “Red Tails” was just another action flick with African Americans as the heroes rather than the usual white guys. The review went on to fault the movie for not adequately exploring the hurdles that the airman had to overcome, and for not covering the aftermath of the war as the airman returned home.
My take was quite different. The movie does spend some time on the battles the airman had to wage in order to get into combat, but admittedly not much. However, most of the movie is focused on their dangerous combat missions over Germany. The story of the Tuskeegee Airman is so incredible and so heroic that it would be unbelievable if it weren’t true. I can understand the pride that an African American would feel in watching these exploits. Watching it I was also proud – proud that I could claim the kinship of being a fellow countryman of these citizen warriors, who risked all to show the world – and their fellow Americans – what they could do.
Sadly, time is taking its toll on the 33nd. At the 66th reunion in 2011 there were only 46 remaining members.
442nd Regimental Combat Team
Also in the category of "unbelievable if it weren't true" is the story of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Like the Tuskeegee Airman the 442nd faced racism in their struggle to serve. Per Wikipedia, the 442nd was
composed almost entirely of American soldiers of Japanese descent who volunteered to fight in World War II even though their families were subject to internment. The 442nd, beginning in 1944, fought primarily in Europe during World War II. The 442nd was a self-sufficient force, and fought with uncommon distinction in Italy, southern France, and Germany. The 442nd is considered to be the most decorated infantry regiment in the history of the United States Army. The 442nd was awarded eight Presidential Unit Citations and twenty-one of its members were awarded the Medal of Honor for World War II. The 442nd's high distinction in the war and its record-setting decoration count earned it the nickname "Purple Heart Battalion."
I suggest that you read the whole Wikipedia page to get an idea of the valor of these men.
Another interesting tidbit regarding the 442nd: Their motto of “Go for broke” was apparently the genesis of this phrase. It indicates the dedication that they exhibited in order to prove their patriotism.
The 442nd RCT recently had their 70th reunion. Around 170 of the veterans attended, but they are now in their 90s. There aren’t many reunions left for these heroes.
Honoring Our Heroes
Memorial Day is dedicated to those soldiers, sailors and airman that we have lost. I include in that number a great uncle who died in France in 1944.
My intent in this blog was to point out the heroes that are still with us, and who we are about to lose. Fortunately we have new heroes ready to replace them. I believe that we always will.
There are actions we can take every day to honor our veterans, whether they are retired or on active duty. The Honor Flight Network provides transportation to Washington DC for veterans to visit the memorials dedicated to their service. I am not involved in that effort, but I am fortunate that my job has enabled me to make life easier for a few active duty soldiers when they travel on duty. What can you do to recognize their service?
P.S. - Here's a quick shout out to John, who just returned to work at Overture after being called up to active duty in a hot and dusty location overseas. Welcome back!