Doolittle Raider, WWII Hero, Dies at Age 96

12:38 PM, Feb 28, 2013   |    comments
Griffin pictured in the photo on the left with his 'Hell's Cargo' crewmates 1st Lt. Charles S. Meyers Jr., center and Sergeant Everett Hunt. On the right is an image in later years. (
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By Cliff Radel

The Cincinnati Inquirer

Green Township, OH - Tom Griffin, one of just five surviving Doolittle Raiders, died Tuesday night in his sleep at the Fort Thomas VA hospital. He navigated one of 16 B-25 bombers from an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Pacific during the early dark days of World War II to launch a surprise daylight attack on Tokyo, lifting American morale.

The longtime Green Township, Ohio resident was 96.

By his own count, Mr. Griffin cheated death eight times during World War II. The first time was when he took off in a land-based bomber from the deck of the USS Hornet at 9 a.m. April 18, 1942. The mid-ocean takeoff made history. No land-based bomber had ever taken off from an aircraft carrier in combat. The Raiders made history later that day when they bombed Tokyo in partial payback for Japan's Dec. 7, 1941, surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Raiders have a connection to the Midlands. The group was brought to what is now the Columbia Metropolitan Airport where they were informed of their mission.

Mr. Griffin's plane, which he named, the Whirling Dervish, knocked the lights out in Tokyo. The Whirling Dervish's bombs flattened the Tokyo Gas & Electric plant.

After spending months and traveling thousands of miles behind enemy lines, he returned home - "they gave us three weeks off" - only to be sent on bombing runs from North Africa to Europe. He was shot down and taken prisoner on July 4, 1943, after a mission over Sicily. He was freed nearly two years later.

"Spending the last 22 months of the war in a German prison camp was no fun," Mr. Griffin recalled. His last day in camp was supposed to be his last day on Earth. The Germans had planned to execute all of the prisoners of war on April 30, 1945. But on that day, the camp was liberated by American troops.

"That was a glorious day," Mr. Griffin recalled. "Never saw the sun shining so brightly."

The ranks of the Doolittle Raiders once numbered 80. Mr. Griffin's passing leaves just four survivors. They are: Dick Cole (a Dayton native and the copilot of Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, the leader of the raid and its namesake), Robert Hite, Edward Saylor and David Thatcher.

The remaining Raiders will have their 71st reunion April 17-21 in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., where Mr. Griffin's passing will be noted with a toast and the words: "To those who have gone." He had hoped to attend the event.

"I had also planned to live to be 100," Mr. Griffin said during an interview just after a heart condition landed the retired accountant in the Fort Thomas facility in late November. "But the way I feel, with my ticker, I might have to eat my own words."

He said that with a satisfied smile.

"What a life I've had," Mr. Griffin added, leaning back in an easy chair his sons had installed in his room. "It's a great old life if you can get a good design for living and you can come up at my age and say: 'Well, I didn't do too badly.' "

In anyone's book, he did quite well, as a GI, a husband and a dad.

After the war, Mr. Griffin, a native of Green Bay, Wis., moved to Cincinnati with his wife, Esther. They raised two sons, John and Gary, and he opened an accounting office in Cheviot. His tall, lanky frame was regularly seen walking from his office to the nearby post office.

Mr. Griffin kept quiet about his time as a Doolittle Raider. That ended in 1977. When his son, Gary, was hired to play keyboards with the Beach Boys, the musician told an interviewer, "you should be talking with my dad. He's more important. He's a Doolittle Raider."

With that, Tom Griffin's secret was out. For the next 35 years, he went to schools and hospitals and community groups to tell his stories.

He did not talk about his heroics as a husband. When his wife became ill and needed to go into a nursing home, he visited her every day. He walked from his house to the nursing home, fed his wife and at the end of the day brought home her clothes. At night, he washed and ironed her clothes. Then, he walked them up to her room the next morning. He did that for three years until her death in 2005.

During his 25 years as a public speaker, Mr Griffin was regularly introduced as a "hero."

Every time he heard that word, he would wince, shake his head and humbly decline the title.

"I'm no hero," he said one last time in November in his hospital room.

"I just did my job as best I could."

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