DAVID GREENE, HOST:
On this day in 1942, the United States struck back against Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The 80 men who flew that first bombing raid over Tokyo are known as the Doolittle Raiders, named after their commander Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle. For decades, the Raiders have met each year to remember their historic World War II mission. But with few surviving members, a meeting in Florida this week will be their last.
NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Only four Doolittle Raiders remain, all in their 90's. Three were up for making the trip to Fort Walton Beach, Florida, for this final public reunion. Tom Casey is manager of the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders.
TOM CASEY: It's finally the end of their mission.
ELLIOTT: A mission that's ending where it started, at Eglin Air Force base.
ELLIOTT: Today, the Raiders get a hero's welcome at the Armament museum on base. Seventy-one years ago, the young airmen came for a top secret mission.
EDWARD SAYLOR: We volunteered. We didn't know what we were going to be doing.
ELLIOTT: Edward Saylor was crew chief and flight engineer on one of the 16 B-25 bombers on the mission. At Eglin, the crews learned how to take off from a Navy aircraft carrier, a much shorter launch than usual. The plan was to bomb major Japanese cities then land in unoccupied China. Some called it impossible.
SAYLOR: Oh yeah, impossible alright. And the odds were really bad once we had to take off early and bomb in the daylight.
ELLIOTT: Japanese fishing boats spotted their aircraft carrier, forcing them to launch immediately and further from their target - meaning they might not have enough fuel to make it to China.
Dick Cole was Jimmy Doolittle's co-pilot in the lead plane.
DICK COLE: You're on a mission. And you don't believe it's a suicide mission, if that's what you're thinking.
ELLIOTT: They dropped their bombs on Japan and headed for China. David Thatcher was the flight engineer and gunner on Plane 7. It crashed into the surf near a Chinese island.
DAVID THATCHER: We hit the water with the wheels down so it immediately turned us upside down.
ELLIOTT: He escaped from the submerged fuselage to find the rest of his crew had been thrown from the plane. With the help of locals, then-Corporal Thatcher kept his wounded officers alive until they reached a mainland hospital three days later, with the enemy in pursuit.
THATCHER: We left that spot at nine in the morning. And then four hours later, there was a company of Japanese soldiers right at that spot to try and - but they never caught up with us.
ELLIOTT: Sixty-two of the 80 raiders survived. The Tokyo mission is considered a turning point that put Japan on the defensive, and lifted American morale after Pearl Harbor.
RON MARTIN: It's like Washington Crossing the Delaware. It was a victory we needed at a very, very bad time in our nation.
ELLIOTT: Ron Martin, of DeKalb, Illinois, didn't want to miss the last Raider reunion. He was first in a long line to get autographs and give his thanks.
MARTIN: Nice to meet you. Thank you for your service.
ELLIOTT: Even after all these years and the books and movies that have made their raid on Tokyo famous, the surviving Raiders still seem surprised by the spotlight
Again, Doolittle's co-pilot Dick Cole.
COLE: Well, I'm going to say something that's very trite but it's the truth - the basic truth. That was our job.
ELLIOTT: Edward Saylor agrees.
SAYLOR: We just went and done a mission. The war was on. Over time, people decided that we helped change the war. So that was nice. I guess everybody who went to war helped change it, didn't they? They won it.
ELLIOTT: The fourth remaining raider, Robert Hite, wasn't able to attend the Florida reunion.
Supporters are now lobbying for a Congressional Gold Medal to honor the Doolittle Raiders.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.