DAYTON, Ohio — Thousands of visitors streamed to the national Air Force museum Saturday to pay a Veterans Day weekend tribute to the few surviving members of the Doolittle Raiders, airmen whose daring raid on Japan helped boost US morale during World War II, as they planned to make their ceremonial final toast together.
With many waving flags, spectators ranging from small children to fellow war veterans greeted three Raiders in a motorcade heading to the National Museum of the US Air Force near Dayton in southwest Ohio.
After a memorial service and B-25 bomber flyover, the Raiders planned to make a last toast to comrades who died in or since their mission. The toast grew from reunions led by Lieutenant Colonel James ‘‘Jimmy’’ Doolittle, who commanded the daring mission credited with stunning the Japanese after a string of military successes.
‘‘It’s a piece of history, it’s the last time,’’ said Bruce Sink, 62, who was browsing in a museum gift shop. ‘‘These were pretty brave guys.’’ Only four of the 80 Raiders are still living, and one was unable to attend Saturday because of health issues.
The National Museum of the US Air Force said 600 people, including Air Force officials and Raiders widows, were expected for the invitation-only ceremony Saturday night.
Also expected were relatives of Chinese villagers who helped Raiders elude capture and two US survivors of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
After Thomas Griffin of Cincinnati died in February at 96, the survivors decided they would gather this autumn for one last toast together rather than wait as had been the original plan for the last two survivors to make the toast.
Raiders participating Saturday were Lieutenant Colonel Richard Cole, Doolittle’s co-pilot, 98, of Comfort, Texas; Lieutenant Colonel Edward Saylor, 93, of Puyallup, Wash.; and Sergeant David Thatcher, 92, of Missoula, Mont.
The fourth surviving Raider, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hite, 93, of Nashville, could not attend. Son Wallace Hite said his father, wearing a Raiders blazer, made his own salute to the fallen with a silver goblet of wine at home.
Hite is the last survivor of eight Raiders captured by Japanese soldiers. Three were executed; another died in captivity.
The 80 silver goblets in the event were presented to the Raiders in 1959 by the city of Tucson, Ariz. The Raiders’ names are engraved twice, the second upside-down. At the ceremony, white-gloved cadets pour cognac into the participants’ goblets. Those of the deceased are turned upside-down. The cognac will be from 1896, Doolittle’s birth year.
The volunteers for the April 1942 mission were told only that it would be hazardous. The strike on Tokyo and other sites on Honshu Island began with the sea launch of 16 land-based bombers from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. After the attack, the planes lacked fuel to reach safe airfields in China.
Three crew members died as the Raiders bailed out or crash-landed planes in China, but most were helped to safety by Chinese villagers and soldiers.
The Japanese retaliated by executing Chinese suspected of helping the Americans.