BTS: Doolittle Reunion Week

Wednesday, April 25, 2012
(NOTE: in the spirit of a personal credo I initiated for covering events on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, this, like my previous one on the Obama visit, is another overview of an article that wasn't published but one that I want to post concerning my participation as a private citizen and military retiree)

Four B-25 Mitchell bombers fly past the National Museum of the United States Air Force on April 18 in a 'missing man' formation to honor the Doolittle Raiders.

During an earlier episode of journalistic 'stamina', I covered two events in different cities on the same day (the Santorum and Romney campaign rallies before Ohio's presidential primary back in early March).  In my summary, I described the logistical and physical tolls that reporters sometimes face when given similar assignments.  If I include travel time, those two events only spanned the period of just around nine hours.  In comparison, they were done in the amount of time most people spend at their jobs, to include a lunch break.  Although I ended up coming down with something, these conditions were not very arduous and are considered normal for journalists who follow major candidates as they crisscross the country every four years.  With that experience in my recent past, the next milestone would be covering several events that take place over a multiple number of days and, in the case of the recent Doolittle Reunion activities, at different locations.  Needless to say, I was up for the challenge.

The National Museum of the United States Air Force as seen from the nearby runway.

As I mentioned in my post about obtaining my first set of media credentials, I was not allowed into the recognized press 'pool' to cover the events happening at Wright-Patterson's National Museum of the United States Air Force (NMUSAF) that were closed to the general--or for special events, uninvited--public.  It was a decision that was not very happy about but one that I totally understood and would abide by.  While I started detailing my experience at Urbana's Grimes Field (and still have more 'homework' to do before I can post the actual stories from that location), this one will focus primarily on the activities at the base.  For the record, I did not conduct any formal interviews and only took photos and video for personal use while attending these events (I am 'branding' the ones that I am sharing here solely for copyright protection).  Incredibly, for all the events I covered during the week, I only saw one television representative with a remote truck on the flightline (I didn't recognize him and since the vehicle wasn't branded, I'm not sure which station he worked for) and just a handful of others wearing media badges at the public autograph session.  I'm guessing they concentrating their efforts on the non-public events or else I was just unlucky not to see more of these people who submitted "volumes" of requests for access and precluded me from obtaining my own credentials.

Twenty B-25 Mitchell bombers line up on April 17 for a static display on the runway behind the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

The first event I showed up for was the static display of the participating B-25s at the museum's flight line.  The NMUSAF is situated on "Area B" of the base which used to be Wright Field before the consolidation with Patterson Field in 1948.  Although all of the installation's air traffic currently uses the facilities on the other side of the base, the runway on Area B is regularly maintained and that upkeep allows new aircraft additions to the museum to be flown there directly instead of being taken apart and shipped by road from the other flight line.  Early on Tuesday morning, the participating B-25s that were staged at Grimes Field flew down to the NMUSAF for a public display during the museum's operating hours.  A total of 20 bombers made the trip (another one experienced mechanical problems and was unable to make the 40-mile flight) and they were lined up almost wingtip-to-wingtip for photographers and sightseers to view and enjoy.  Two portable jetways were positioned on both ends of the runway to allow the public to see them from a slightly aerial perspective. While I did recognize some that were also at Saturday's events, there were a lot more there that day to participate in the following day's ceremonies.

A B-25 serves as the central artifact for a permanent display area inside the National Museum of the United States Air Force paying tribute to the Doolittle Raiders.

After visiting all of them (and taking a closer look inside the "Show Me!"), I made my way over to the museum to look at the permanent display they have honoring the 1942 Doolittle raid and the men who participated in it.  One graphic shows photos of all of the crews taken before they took off from the USS Hornet and their date with destiny.  Other memorabilia depicts some of their experiences in China after dropping their bombs off in and around Tokyo (with one detailing the fates of those who were not so lucky and either died or were interned for their actions).  Besides the B-25 that dominates the ensemble, the other article that attracts the most attention is the set of 80 sterling silver goblets representing all members of that raid.  As of this posting, there are only five that have not yet been turned over (done upon the member's death by the survivors at the next reunion).  When I went to see them, there was a sign indicating that they were temporarily removed due to the ongoing reunion activities.  With the remaining members' ages advancing and their overall health failing, this could be the last time that such a placeholder may be needed. 

A sign indicating that the Doolittle goblets were removed for a reunion-related activity.  Due to the survivors' advancing ages, this may be the last time that this sign is used.

From start to finish, I spent almost five hours on the NMUSAF grounds on Tuesday.  In stark contrast, Wednesday's assignment would be a 'quickie'.  While there would be a formal ceremony held to honor the Raiders at the museum's Memorial Park (by invitation only but there was standing-room only areas outside the roped-off sections), I decided that I would skip it and concentrate on the  activities in the skies above.  During the last big reunion back in 2010, the participating B-25s flew in formation over the ceremony and a similar overflight would happen this year.  With my military retiree credentials, I was able to find a spot where I felt I could get the best angle for capturing the planes as well as the museum itself.  The flyover was scheduled for 1PM and when I got there around 12:40 the planes were already airborne and practicing formation flight.

Base personnel staked out prime viewing locations for the April 18 B-25 flyover honoring the Doolittle Raiders at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

From my own recollection of being in a marching formation, I remember just how hard it was to maintain a constant speed and interval between my fellow troops and those issues must be compounded exponentially with a dozen or so 20-ton, 65+ year old aircraft in the mix.  Right around 1PM, the group made their first pass to the delight of the assembled workers who had filed out of their offices to take in this rare spectacle.  The formation made one more pass en masse before departing for Grimes Field and other locations.  Four B-25s broke away from the main group and circled back to make one final flyby over the crowd.  During this pass, they performed the 'missing man' formation in an aerial salute to the Raiders in attendance as well as those who had passed away over the past 70 years.  I was walking back to my car after the second pass and almost missed the last one entirely.  Familiarity with my camera and its features helped me capture that moment (seen above).

A formation of B-25 bombers pass over the National Museum of the United States Air Force on April 18 to honor the 70th reunion of the Doolittle Raiders.

With no public events on Thursday, the last chance to see the Raiders by the general public would be on Friday afternoon.  The museum advertised an autograph session with the four attending members on their website at a location that would be announced on that date.  The line for the event was to open at 12:30PM and autographs were to be limited to just one per person.  I was in a work training class on Friday morning but it let out around 12:30 so I quickly made my way over to the base to get into the anticipated long line.  As I made my way through the gift shop, I heard that the tickets for getting an autograph were already exhausted (I got there by 12:50) and that I should make my way over to the Carney Auditorium if I had any questions.

A shot of the near overflow crowd inside the National Museum of the United States Air Force's Carney Auditorium on April 20 who were seeking Doolittle Raider autographs at the public session.

When I got to that location, I was flabbergasted by the sheer number of people who filled up that large room.  I stepped inside right before the door was closed behind me to prevent any others from entering.  One of the event organizers started to detail the procedures surrounding the autograph session and many in that crowd were not very happy with the rules she set down (number of signatures, where the beginning and end of the line would be determined).  At that point, I decided that I really wasn't there for an autograph but for photos and I gave my ticket to someone who had driven nearly four hours to see these men.  In gratitude for my selflessness, the representative told me where the autographing would take place and I quickly went there to stake out the location and determine the best vantage points for video and photos.

The Doolittle goblets made an appearance on April 20 at the public autograph session with four of the five surviving Raiders at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

Arriving at the museum's 'middle' hangar (the building housing the Korean War and Southeast Asia War galleries), I saw the staff setting up the tables and rope lines to direct the autograph seekers to the respective Raider so I knew that I was in the right place.  Several tables were set up outside the controlled area and they served as a display area for the Doolittle goblets and for autographs by two US Navy veterans who were also being honored--but not restricted--at this event.  At around 2:15PM, the first of the Raiders was brought in to the hall and all were seated and in position by 2:25PM.  The crowd initially trickled in but turned into a full-blown stream as the afternoon moved forward.  People were bringing a variety of articles for signatures--books, maps, posters, and even models--and it appeared that everyone who had waited for that lengthy period got an opportunity to meet them.  I did have a book that the two Navy guests signed for me as well as the author, who was in the gift shop all week to provide that service for interested purchasers.

Doolittle Raider historian C.V. Glines (in foreground) and four of the five surviving Raiders (at table in background) sign autographs during a public event on April 20 at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

My photos were not up to the quality that I expected them to turn out.  The fourth Raider didn't show until right before the public was brought in so I couldn't get a photo with just the four by themselves at the tables like I wished I could.  Each one had a relative or other aide with them to assist in the process.  For the two interior signers, I had to contend with people stepping into my shots who were visiting with the ones on the outside.  I did get the opportunity to use a personal hydraulic lift that a kind museum employee offered to me and others who wanted to capture the events from a higher vantage point.  I left the area around 4PM, exhausted but knowing that I accomplished that day's (and the week's) objective of seeing the Raiders--albeit at a distance--in person.

Autograph seekers lining up for Doolittle Raider signatures at the April 20 public event at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

As I mentioned above, I have several stories and interviews "in the can" from Grimes Field that I need to get working on in order to earn press recognition--and privileges--at future events.  I can't just say I'm a journalist and not have anything to show for it.  Right now, I'm working on my final assignment for my newswriting and reporting class that must be turned in by next Tuesday so they will, unfortunately, have to stay on the 'backburner' for just a little while longer.

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