(CNN) — “I think, when the moment finally comes, I’ll probably have mixed feelings about it,” Dick Cole said. “It will be like coming to the last page of a book you don’t want to end. The book has been a good one, but you’re sad that it’s over.”
He is 98 years old. He was part of a military unit whose valor is written indelibly on the pages of this nation’s history. The Doolittle Raiders flew their “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” mission in April 1942, when, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, spirits in the United States were at a low point. The 80 Raiders, flying 16 bombers under the command of Jimmy Doolittle, showed the world that America would never give up.
“We had planned on waiting until there were only two of us left to open the bottle and have our final toast,” Cole said. “But we don’t want to wait any longer. As fragile as most of us are, it’s time.”
So, on Saturday, at the National Museum of the United States Air Force on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, the few Raiders who still are alive will open the bottle of 1896 Hennessy Very Special cognac — 1896 was the year of Jimmy Doolittle’s birth — and raise a solemn toast to their crewmates who have died.
“All 80 of us knew each other, from all our training missions,” Cole said. “I can still close my eyes and see their faces, hear their voices. We were a pretty good team.”
Pretty good? They were the finest and bravest warriors this nation had to offer. Cole was Doolittle’s co-pilot in the first of the 16 planes to take off from the deck of the USS Hornet in the Pacific.
“We knew that we had just separated ourselves from civilization,” he said. “There were no long-range radios in the planes. And, of course, there was no turning back.”
There was a time when every schoolchild in the U.S. was taught about the courage of the Raiders. It was a true-life story the country knew by heart:
The U.S., after Pearl Harbor, was in terrible trouble in the Pacific. Launching a counterattack on Japan seemed impossible, because there were no U.S. airfields close enough. And then came the Doolittle Raiders, 80 volunteers with guts enough to thrill their countrymen.
They would fly 16 specially modified B-25s from the deck of the Hornet. Launching heavy bombers from a carrier had never been tried; returning to the ship was not an option. The plan was to hit Tokyo, then hope to make it safely to China.
But when there were reports on the day of the raid that Japan had learned of the mission, a decision was made: The planes had to take off from much farther out in the Pacific than had been anticipated. From that distance there was not enough fuel to get them to safety.
And those men took off anyway.
“I was scared, frightened — just about any word you can think of that describes being apprehensive,” Cole said. “But I knew I was flying with the best pilot in the world.”
Doolittle’s men hit Tokyo, then flew as far as they could. Eleven crews had to bail out; four crews crash-landed and one plane made it to Russia. Two Raiders died as they bailed out. Eight were captured by the Japanese; three of them were executed, and five were sentenced to life in prison. One died of starvation; the others were grievously mistreated for more than three years.
When 2013 began, there were five surviving Raiders, but then Tom Griffin died. So now there are four: Dick Cole, Robert Hite, Edward Saylor and David Thatcher.
Their annual April reunions have come to an end. But even with all their somber and prayerful annual toasts to those they have lost, they have never opened the bottle of 1896 cognac. The Doolittle bottle.
Now, at the Air Force Museum, they will. It is unclear whether Robert Hite is in good enough health to make it to Dayton; the others plan to be there. This will be it, forever. When the bottle is opened, Cole said, “I know there will be tears, at least in my case.”
He said he hopes that today’s young Americans will take one lesson from what the Doolittle Raiders did:
“I would like for them to understand that there are times in one’s life that require a lot of sacrifices. If you want to live free, you’ve got to make those sacrifices.”
There is one piece of unfinished business:
Jimmy Doolittle, who died in 1993, was awarded the Medal of Honor. But the raid was not a one-man mission; Doolittle would have been the first to vociferously point that out.
Friends and admirers of the Raiders have been trying to persuade Congress, in recognition of the Raiders’ contribution to this country, to award the entire 80-man squad not the Medal of Honor, but the Congressional Gold Medal, one of our nation’s highest tributes. No one is asking for Congress to strike 80 gold medals — just one, in the Raiders’ name, while some of the crew are still alive.
You wouldn’t think it would be difficult. The Congressional Gold Medal has been presented to, among others, Frank Sinatra and Arnold Palmer. You’d think the Doolittle Raiders would rate one.
And their supporters have gone about the request in the proper way. A bill asking for authorization of the medal was introduced in a bipartisan manner: A Democrat, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, introduced it in the Senate, and a Republican, Pete Olson of Texas, introduced it in the House.
Yet there it languishes. There are not enough co-sponsors in either chamber to get the medal authorized. The slowness seems to come not from any animosity, but from indifference. Congress has other things to do.
Meanwhile, the clock ticks on the Raiders. Cole is 98; Saylor and Hite are 94; Thatcher is 92. As Brian Anderson — a friend and longtime admirer of the Raiders who has worked to get the medal authorized and has tried to get the attention of members of Congress — said: “Time is not on the Raiders’ side.”
So those brave men will gather in Dayton next weekend for their final toast.
Before they do, here is a simple question for Congress:
Can you not even do this right?
The Doolittle Raiders have earned that medal. But it isn’t the Raiders who should be grateful to be associated with Congress.
It is Congress that should be proud and grateful to be permitted to be associated with the Raiders.
Editor’s note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include “Late Edition: A Love Story”; “Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War”; and “Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen.”