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The Doolittle Raiders reunions once were the stuff of legend.

Of course, the men who flew the famed B-25 bomber mission over Japan on April 18, 1942, took their cue from their leader.

"Colonel Doolittle told them, ‘If we make it through this, I'll throw you the damnedest party you've ever seen,'" said Bob Joyce of Omaha, a son of one of the raiders, the late Richard Joyce of Lincoln. "And he did."

The surviving raiders always reserved a few solemn moments to honor their fallen when they gathered at a different city each year.

Then they reveled.

Entertainers such as Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope and Jonathan Winters headlined the events. Rumor has it some of the raiders might have gotten kicked out of a swanky hotel or two.

Now, just five of the 80 Doolittle Raiders are still living, down from eight last year. The youngest is 89, the oldest 95.

Their 69th anniversary reunion will be Thursday through Sunday in Lincoln, Omaha and at the Strategic Air and Space Museum near Ashland. They will attend a number of public events, including a field appearance Saturday at the Huskers' Spring Game. Two B-25 bombers and two P-51 Mustangs are scheduled to fly over Memorial Stadium in their honor.

"This may well be their last public reunion," Joyce said.

The survivors are Dick Cole, Tom Griffin, Bob Hite, David Thatcher and Ed Saylor. As of Tuesday, all five were planning to fly to Nebraska for the event.

Nearly seven decades ago, they flew a legendary secret mission led by Doolittle to bomb military targets in Japan. They launched their B-25s from the carrier USS Hornet, dodged anti-aircraft fire and landed in China because they lacked the fuel to make it back to the carrier.

More important than the damage inflicted was the morale boost the mission gave the U.S. armed forces and Americans at home four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Three men died in the raid, and three others were executed after being captured by the Japanese. One other died as a prisoner of war.

Two of the raiders were born and raised in Lincoln: Richard Joyce and Donald Fitzmaurice, who died in the raid. A third, Fred Braemer, is buried here.

The raiders last held a reunion in Nebraska in 1976 in Omaha. Among the events they'll attend this week:

* Autograph session, noon-2 p.m. Thursday, Strategic Air and Space Museum (north of Interstate 80 Exit 426). Museum admission required.

* Wreath-laying ceremony, 4 p.m., Thursday at the graves of Joyce and Braemer, at Wyuka and Calvary cemeteries in Lincoln, respectively (public is welcome to attend).

* Lunch and autograph session, Saturday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. at Silverhawk Aviation, Lincoln Airport. Limited tickets are available for $40. Includes static displays of WWII military aircraft.

A dinner banquet, grand banquet and brunch at the museum also are planned.

Proceeds from the events benefit scholarships for college students studying aviation.

For more information on other events, including rides on the B-25s, go to www.doolittlereunion.com.

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Reach Joe Duggan at 402-473-7239 or jduggan@journalstar.com.

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