The first three months of 1942 was the darkest period of the war. Our Navy was in ruins. The Japanese were winning on every front, and America was waiting on them to invade the West Coast.
The country needed a victory, and Army Air Force Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle had just the ticket: Take the war to the Japanese homeland, and bomb Tokyo.
Doolittle's proposal was quickly agreed to, and he set about gathering planes and volunteer crews.
Sixteen B-25 bombers would take off from the carrier Hornet in mid-ocean (a first), fly 450 miles to bomb targets in Japan, then fly another 1,600 miles to airfields in occupied China. Getting the planes was easy, but who would volunteer for the one-way, low-survival mission? Doolittle had plenty of takers. He culled until he got the best 80 - who were soon to be heroes all.
One of those was Nolan Herndon.
Mr. Herndon (originally from Texas, but moved to Edgefield, S.C., after the war), believed "our country needed a victory," so the 21-year-old stepped up to the plate.
Nonchalant in later years as to his reasons - "When you are young, you usually don't think about getting hurt or getting killed" - he survived the raid, ending up in Russia, then found his way back home, where he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
After the war, the surviving raiders gathered to celebrate Doolittle's birthday, and from that event came an annual reunion. In 1959, the city of Tucson, Ariz., gave the group a set of 80 silver goblets with each name engraved. At every reunion, now held at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, a ceremony is conducted in which, after a toast, the goblets with the names of those that died that year are turned upside-down.
Doolittle had been presented with a bottle of 1896 cognac (he was born that year). He gave the bottle to the group on the condition that it be shared by the last two survivors.
We are closer to opening the bottle.
Nolan Herndon died Sunday.
At the next reunion, his goblet will be turned over. There are now 12 survivors.