Thursday, April 18, 2002

'Always to danger'

Here's to Tom Griffin, a true hero

        When the clock strikes nine this morning, think of Tom Griffin.

        Sixty years ago today, he became a hero.

        At 9 a.m on April 18, 1942, the bomber he was navigating took off from an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean. Tom was soon airborne with the rest of Jimmy Doolittle's Raiders.

        The Raiders had launched their successful surprise attack on the Japanese mainland. It was payback time for Pearl Harbor.

        The Raiders beat the odds then. They're beating them now.

        Although their numbers are dwindling, they're still doing better than expected.

        Once there were 80 Raiders. Now, 23 remain. Just 18 will attend this week's reunion in Columbia, S.C.

        At every reunion, the ranking officer toasts those who died the previous year with the words: “To those who have gone.”

        When all but two are gone, Raider rules call for one last toast. Silver cups engraved with the names of the last two living airmen will be filled with cognac.

        “The stuff was laid down in 1896,” Tom said as he packed his bags in a bedroom of his Green Township condo. “That's the year Jimmy Doolittle was born.”

        According to professional oddsmakers, that toast should have happened already.

        “About 35-40 years ago, some insurance guys estimated the last two Raiders would drink the last toast in 2000,” Tom said.

        “We're still here. What a hardy bunch.”

        Tom isn't volunteering for that mission.

        “I don't like cognac.”

        The Raiders aren't kids anymore. There's talk this 60th reunion may be their last.

        “We are a bunch of old codgers,” Tom admitted. “I'm 85.

        “Each reunion could be our last. But there won't be any sadness this week. We're happy to see each other. We're old friends.”

        Tom showed me his reunion outfit, a blue blazer and matching tie. Each bore the Raiders' insignia with its motto in French, Toujours au Danger.


        “That means "always to the danger,' ” Tom said, “because we were nuts.”

        They weren't nuts. They were heroes.

        “No,” Tom protested. “We were too scared to be heroes.”

        No offense. But I disagree.

        Like the other Raiders, Tom qualifies as a true American hero. A common man who rose to the occasion, he never brags about his deeds. Only recently has he talked at length about his World War II experiences.

        “I've been invited to so many history classes lately I've become a talking head,” he said.

        “Years ago, no one wanted to hear about the war. I don't feel slighted. That's just the way things were.”

        Like most of his generation, Tom came home from the war, went to work (as an accountant), got married, raised a family and put the war behind him.

        Even if he was a Doolittle Raider. Even if his plane ran out of gas over China and he bailed out “over the mountains at night during a storm.” Even if he went on to fly in bombers over Europe, got shot down and spent 22 months in a POW camp.

        Tom's condo is two blocks from the nursing home caring for his wife, Esther. He walks over to visit “my Es” every day. He washes her clothes at home and brings them back the next day.

        He makes no bones about his lot in life. He accepts it with the same uncomplaining grace as he did his World War II service.

        “It's something you have to do,” Tom said.

        “So, you do it.”

        That's what makes heroes in war and in peace.

       Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; e-mail


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