Jewish World Review May 31, 2001 / 9 Sivan, 5761
The words -- spoken by my friend Gary Griffin, a keyboard player in touring rock bands -- was the prelude to one of the proudest and most humbling experiences of my life.
Gary's father, Tom Griffin, now 84, was one of the Doolittle Raiders -- one of the 80 U.S. aviators who, in April of 1942, took off in 16 B-25s from the deck of the USS Hornet in the Pacific Ocean, and carried out a raid on the Japanese mainland. It was America's first strong and effective response after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; it gave Americans hope that the war in the Pacific really might be won some day, and that this country might prevail and live again in peace.
I've been writing about the Doolittle raid this week because "Pearl Harbor" is about to open -- and at last the courage of the Doolittle Raiders may be learned and applauded by a new generation of Americans. You can't make an uplifting movie about what happened at Pearl Harbor -- unless you move it forward four months, and end it with the valor of the Doolittle raid. Advance word is that this is exactly what the makers of "Pearl Harbor" have done.
There are 25 surviving Doolittle Raiders. It's impossible to know yet whether the movie does them justice. They deserve it, every day of their lives.
Which brings us back to Gary Griffin's phone call to me, a few years back. The surviving Raiders -- only 17 were well enough to travel -- were meeting at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, where a monument to them was being dedicated. For some reason, the United States Air Force Museum, on the grounds of the base, had failed to line up a master of ceremonies for the event.
These men -- who took off for Tokyo knowing that they did not have enough fuel to make it to safety -- deserved Colin Powell, or Norman Schwarzkopf, or John Glenn, if not the president of the United States. But they had no one to run the ceremony.
Gary asked me to call his dad; his dad asked if I would do it. I explained to Mr. Griffin that the Doolittle Raiders should not have to settle for some newspaper guy; he said they were really in a pinch.
So I went to Wright-Patterson. I spent the weekend with Doolittle's men (Doolittle himself had died in 1993). And....
What is astonishing is that these men, in their old age, are all but ignored in their own country. What they did -- take off from that carrier in the Pacific, all the while accepting the fact that they were almost certain to have to ditch their planes, and perhaps die or be taken captive by the Japanese -- is so stirring that it almost defies adequate description. They were willing to do that to save their country -- to save the world. And now people pass them on the streets and have no idea.
Once you know their story, it is difficult to look them in the eyes without feeling your own eyes well with tears. At the Wright-Patterson ceremony, the Air Force honor guard that had brought the flag in somehow disappeared -- so when the Raiders stood at attention at the end of the ceremony, waiting for the flag to be retrieved, no one came. A small indignity, perhaps, for men who had been ordered to launch their planes from 240 miles farther from Japan than had been planned -- and thus almost certainly were destined to ditch or crash. In Dayton, now in their 70s and 80s, they stood at attention and waited.
What moved me the most was to observe them with their wives. Some of the wives were in wheelchairs; some used walkers. The Raiders patiently, quietly took care of them -- got them to their seats, helped them at the lunch tables afterward, assisted them as they ate their meals. These men did what was expected of them in 1942, and they were doing what was expected of them now, because that is who they were and who they are.
I don't know whether "Pearl Harbor" will be a hit movie or not. But if all the movie does is remind the world that some of the Raiders are still among us, that will be enough. I know what I felt at the end of my weekend with them. It was quite simple and quite basic:
This is what it can mean -- this is what it should mean -- to be a