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Tom Griffin, 96; navigated daring Doolittle Raid on Japan in WWII

Major Tom Griffin in his Ohio home with a Time cover with James Doolittle on its cover.

Al Behrman/Associated Press/file 2011

Major Tom Griffin in his Ohio home with a Time cover with James Doolittle on its cover.

CINCINNATI — Major Thomas C. ‘‘Tom’’ Griffin, a B-25 navigator in the audacious Doolittle’s Raid on mainland Japan during World War II, died Tuesday in a veterans nursing home in northern Kentucky.

His death at age 96 leaves four surviving Raiders.

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Mr. Griffin was among the 80 original volunteers for the April 18, 1942, mission. When they began training, they were told only it would be ‘‘extremely hazardous,’’ coming in the aftermath of Japan’s devastating attack on Pearl Harbor and a string of other Japanese military successes.

‘‘We needed to hit back,’’ Mr. Griffin said in an interview a year ago in his suburban Cincinnati home. The attack on Tokyo, with a risky launch of 16 land-based bombers at sea from an aircraft carrier, shocked the Japanese and was credited with significantly lifting American morale.

The planes lacked fuel to reach safe bases in China after dropping their bombs. All were lost, but most members of the raid survived, either through crash-landing or parachuting. Mr. Griffin parachuted over China after the attack, eluded Japanese capture, and returned to action in bombing runs from North Africa before being shot down in 1943 and spending nearly two years in a German prison camp.

Mr. Griffin died less than two months from what now will be the Raiders’ final annual reunion, April 17-21 in Fort Walton Beach, in the Florida Panhandle where the Raiders trained for the attack.

‘‘We kind of expected it, because he had gone downhill pretty quickly the last few weeks, but you can never really prepare yourself for when one of these guys goes,’’ said Tom Casey, manager of the Doolittle Raiders Association.

Mr. Griffin took part in last year’s 70th reunion at the National Museum of the US Air Force near Dayton, which also included survivors and relatives of the USS Hornet carrier and Chinese villagers who helped the Raiders elude capture. Eight Raiders were captured, and three were executed. A fourth died in captivity. Villagers suspected of hiding the Americans also were executed.

‘‘We had a lot of near-misses, when [Japanese soldiers] raided places we had been the night before,’’ recalled Mr. Griffin, who had parachuted into a tree without major injury. Three Raiders died off China after the raid.

Mr. Griffin had joked last year that he hoped to be one of the last two surviving Raiders who would share the final toast in a small gathering, which had been the plan for decades.

‘‘It’s going to be special,’’ Mr. Griffin said before the Dayton reunion. ‘‘I can’t help but think it’s going to be our last one.’’

Instead, it will be Mr. Griffin’s turn to be honored at the reunion; a goblet with his name engraved on it will be turned upside down. The private ceremony will include only Raiders, the Raiders’ historian, Casey, and two Air Force cadets. There will be a roll call of the names of all the Raiders.

When Mr. Griffin’s name is called, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Cole, at age 97 the oldest survivor, will give a report on Mr. Griffin, Casey said.

At the end of the reading of names, the white-gloved cadets will pour cognac into the goblets of the survivors, and they will drink their special toast: ‘‘To those who have gone.’’

Besides Cole, a Dayton native who lives in Comfort, Texas, the other survivors are Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hite of Nashville; Lieutenant Colonel Edward Saylor of Puyallup, Wash.; and Master Sergeant David Thatcher of Missoula, Mont.

Casey said Thursday that the Raiders have decided not to wait until there are two survivors to have the final toast. Instead, they plan to have a special gathering later this year to share what will be their final toast. He said because of the advancing ages of the remaining survivors, it was decided to allow all those still alive late this year to take part.

Dates and details will be announced later. For their toast, they will drink from a bottle of 1896 cognac, the year their commander, Lieutenant Colonel ‘‘Jimmy’’ Doolittle, was born.

Mr. Griffin was a native of Green Bay, Wis., who settled in the Cincinnati area after the war and had an accounting business. He was preceded in death by his wife and leaves two sons.

Services will be March 9 at the Green Township Veterans Park, with a B-25 flyover.

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