FORT WALTON BEACH — For the first time since 1968, the remaining Doolittle Raiders will hold their annual reunion in April in Fort Walton Beach. Organizers are busy trying to make their 71st the best one yet.
View a video promotion of the event.
The World War II veterans will be coming home in a way. They trained at then Eglin Field for the famous April 18, 1942, bombing attack on Tokyo that some say changed the course of history.
Each year, the remaining members of the 80-person team, of which there are now only five, gather at different cities to remember the raid. This year, the men who are in their 90s have chosen to visit the Emerald Coast. It could be their last.
“If you want to see the Raiders, if you want the chance to honor them, it’s going to be here in your backyard,” said Ted Corcoran, president of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, which is organizing the event.
The reunion, scheduled for April 17-20, already is attracting interest from across the country. Last year’s reunion in Dayton, Ohio, sold out in three hours, Corcoran said.
The event will include a lunch and banquet April 18 at the C.H. “Bull” Rigdon Fairgrounds and Recreation Complex in Fort Walton Beach, with the possibility of meeting the Raiders in person. All World War II veterans from Northwest Florida are invited to attend free of charge.
The chamber plans to decorate the fairgrounds as a World War II barracks, with people in period attire, a makeshift USO, and jeeps and tanks that were used during the war.
There will be a flyover April 19 on Okaloosa Island that organizers hope will include a B-25, the plane the Raiders flew, as well as other aircraft from fleets at Hurlburt Field and Eglin, Corcoran said.
Gen. Mark Anthony Welsh III, chief of staff of the Air Force, will be the guest speaker at the banquet April 20.
That day also will feature a historic Parade of Heroes through Fort Walton Beach.
Veterans from all wars will march together, led by the Doolittle Raiders, then World War II veterans, then Korean veterans and so on through the Afghanistan war. Active-duty service members from all branches will follow the veterans.
Corcoran said that to his knowledge, the parade will be the first of its kind held in Fort Walton Beach.
“Our community will be lining the streets of Eglin Parkway waving flags and truly acknowledging the love they have for the military,” he said. “We’ll make it the best reunion they’ve ever had.”
Tickets for the events will go on sale in February, although the exact date has yet to be announced. About 500 will go on sale, and Corcoran expects a sellout.
Beach Community Bank is sponsoring of the event. Proceeds will go to set up a Doolittle Raider scholarship at Northwest Florida State College and to the Fisher House.
The chamber bid with several other cities for the reunion.
“It’s a huge honor for us to be able to pay tribute to them and to bring them back to where it all started,” said Eppi Azzaretto, marketing director for the chamber.
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Lauren Sage Reinlie at 850-315-4440 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRnwfdn.