President Obama signed bills Friday honoring legends of air combat -- the "Doolittle Raiders" of World War II and the fighter pilots from all wars who earned "ace" status for downing at least five enemy aircraft.
Obama's signing awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the 80 volunteers who formed the Raiders and to the more than 1,400 pilots from World War I through the Vietnam War who became Aces.
The single Gold Medal for the Raiders led by then-Lt. Col. James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle of the Army Air Forces will be displayed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
The single medal for the Aces will be displayed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
The Congressional Gold Medal is considered the highest civilian honor along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Medal acknowledges an action "that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient's field."
The award is not limited to U.S. citizens. Previous recipients have been George Washington, Winston Churchill, Mother Theresa and Neil Armstrong, the astronaut who was first to walk on the Moon.
One of the "major achievments" for the Raiders recognized by the award was simply getting their B-25 Mitchell twin-prop medium bombers off the deck of the carrier Hornet on April 18, 1942.
It was the first and only time that Army Air Force bombers ever launched from a Navy carrier on a combat mission.
None of the pilots, including Doolittle, had ever taken off in a bomber from a carrier but they had practiced at Eglin Field, Fla., marking off the 467-feet of takeoff distance that would be provided by the Hornet.
The plan for the 16 bombers, each carrying four 500-pound bombs, was to drop the bombs on Tokyo and other targets on the main island of Honshu and then fly to China. All of the five-man crews either bailed out or crash landed before landing in China.
Four of the Raiders were killed bailing out or in crash landing, three were captured and executed by the Japanese, and one died in captivity.
Doolittle later told the group that he expected to be court-martialed when they returned to the U.S. for losing all 16 aircraft, but he was awarded what was then called the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on May 19, 1942. Doolittle's citation stated: "With the apparent certainty of being forced to land in enemy territory or to perish at sea, Lt. Col. Doolittle personally led a squadron of Army bombers, manned by volunteer crews, in a highly destructive raid on the Japanese mainland."
Historians have concluded that the bombing raid caused minimal damage but the strike on Tokyo rallied a nation still reeling from the Pearl Harbor attacks and the loss of the Philippines.
The raid on the Japanese homeland also humiliated the Japanese military and was a factor in the decision to send the Japanese fleet to Midway, where the resulting defeat changed the course of the war in the Pacific.
Only four of the raiders survived, including Lt. Richard Cole, who was Doolittle's co-pilot. The 98-year-old Cole was in Washington this week to serve as the grand marshal of the National Memorial Day Parade.
"I wish they were all here. I'm pleased to be helping out," Cole said of the group.
Meanwhile, the legislation for the Aces noted that less than 1,500 of the more than 60,000 U.S. military fighter pilots have become "Fighter Aces."
Aces have been awarded 19 Medals of Honor and the "Ace of Aces" was Maj. Richard Bong, credited with shooting down 40 enemy aircraft in the Pacific in World War II. Bong flew all of his missions in a P-38 Lightning for the 49th Fighter Group.
The main sponsor of the Aces legislation on the House side was Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Tex., a decorated 29-year Air Force veteran who spent nearly seven years as a POW in North Vietnam.
"These patriots are the best of the best, the cream of the crop in air-to-air combat. Their efforts have shortened wars and saved lives, yet they have never been rightfully honored -- at least until now," Johnson said in a House floor speech earlier this week.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.email@example.com