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DAYTON, Ohio (Reuters) - Four of the last five survivors of a U.S. World War Two bombing mission over Japan reunited on Wednesday, 70 years after the "Doolittle Tokyo raiders" shocked Japan and lifted flagging American war morale with their daring attempt.
Only five of the 80 U.S. military members who participated in the raid are still alive and one could not attend the annual reunion at a Dayton, Ohio, military base because of ill health.
Air Force Staff Sergeant David Thatcher, 90, remembered April 18, 1942, like it was yesterday. His plane, a B-25 bomber, had just crossed Japan's coastline on its way to Tokyo as part of a surprise attack that helped change the outcome of World War Two in the Pacific. The earlier foul weather had cleared and Thatcher, a gunner, had a clear view of a crowded beach.
"There were hundreds of people," he said. "We were flying so low I could see them waving at us. They were cheering. I'm sure they thought we were Japanese planes."
Thatcher's bomber was one of 16 under the command of famed American aviator Lieutenant Colonel James "Jimmy" Doolittle.
Their mission: Bomb five Japanese cities. Collectively, the men became known as the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders. Over the years, the legend of their feat has grown, spawning books, a movie and recognized by military and history buffs.
The four survivors reminisced on Wednesday at the National Museum of the United States Air Force on the grounds of Wright Patterson Air Force Base.
The three-day reunion began with a flyover of 20 B-25s from across the country. Thousands of people filled the museum grounds and lined the roads around the air base to secure a view.
A service followed at the museum's Memorial Park, near a black granite memorial commemorating the Raiders' mission. Colonel C.V. Glines, 91, the official Raiders historian, recounted the raid and its impact on the war.
At the time of the raid, Japan had carried the momentum from the Pearl Harbor attack to domination of the Pacific, leaving American morale at a low-point. President Franklin Roosevelt asked the armed forces to respond. Doolittle, already retired, returned to active duty and the plan for the raid was hatched.
The Raiders, unaware of their mission, departed from the USS Hornet 600 miles east of Japan. A chance encounter with a Japanese fishing boat, which they destroyed, forced the Raiders to leave early, meaning they would not have enough fuel to make it to their planned landing in China.
As a result, following the bombing, 15 of the planes crash-landed in rural China, while the 16th bomber made it to Russia. The Raiders were aided by Chinese peasants, thousands of whom were later killed by the Japanese for their support of the Americans, Glines said.
Of the 80 Raiders, three died during the landings and eight were captured by the Japanese. Three of those captured were executed, one died in captivity, and four remained prisoners of war and survived the war.
The attack, which did not do much damage to Japan's munitions factories, shifted momentum in the Pacific conflict.
"The Japanese were completely surprised," Glines said. "They did not think the United States had the range for that type of attack."
Japan brought more troops home to protect the mainland, leaving it vulnerable in the Pacific. Rejuvenated U.S. troops took advantage, defeating the Japanese at the Battle of Midway two months later, turning the war for good.
Cole, 96, who was Doolittle's co-pilot, said the aviator deserved much of the credit for the raid. Doolittle died in 1993 at age 96.
"He personified the finest of human qualities, and he set a standard of military leadership that was unprecedented."
As far as the Raiders' role in the war and continuing legend, Cole said, "We are grateful we had the opportunity to serve and mindful that the nation benefited from our service."
Added Thatcher: "We're not the heroes. The men who died are the heroes."
Joining Thatcher, of Missoula, Montana, and Cole of Comfort Texas, were navigator Major Thomas Griffin, 95, of Cincinnati; and gunner Lieutenant Colonel Edward Saylor, 92, of Puyallup, Washington.
Missing because of ill health was Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hite, 92, of Nashville, a co-pilot on the 16th bomber.
Attending the event, David Gabbard II of Dayton, the son and grandson of soldiers, said he was in awe of the occasion.
"It's indescribable to think we can still celebrate this day with these men 70 years later."
Editing by Greg McCune and Peter Cooney