The camera flashes were increasing in frequency, becoming so rapid-fire, so blindingly bright, that someone made an impassioned plea to the line-up of photogs for a temporary truce.
“Can you please hold your flashes?”
And they did, although for just a few seconds, pausing momentarily to look up from behind their long, smoking lenses to make sure the shutterbug next to them was also observing the ceasefire.
But the situation wasn’t taking place on the red carpet at some Hollywood premiere or awards ceremony, nor at a jam-packed press conference. These photographers were not your typical paparazzi swarming a celebrity like sharks at a feeding frenzy. The flash-blinded targets weren’t the Kardashians, another pompous professional athlete or politician.
The request, strangely enough, was made on a black tarmac on a cool, spring April afternoon in the middle of Dayton, Ohio and it was made on behalf of four old men. But these weren’t just any old men. They were heroes. Heroes in perhaps the purest sense of the word. These men were Doolittle Raiders.
Occurring on April 18, 1942, just days after the fall of Bataan in the Philippines, the crowning catastrophe in a string of demoralizing defeats spanning Pearl Harbor to the Dutch East Indies, the Doolittle Raid delivered a desperately-needed booster shot of morale to the American people as well as an aerial antidote to the virulent “victory disease” that had swept Japan in the opening months of World War II. The bombs caused little physical damage, but effectively exploded the myth of Imperial Japanese invincibility and prodded Japan’s warlords into strategic missteps that turned the tide of the Pacific War.
Sixteen U.S. Army Air Force B-25s carrying 80 volunteers powered off the plunging deck of the carrier U.S.S. Hornet on that gray, wind-whipped April morning. Only five of those 80 volunteers were were left – in effect, one last intact crew given that B-25s were operated by crews of five – and the four standing in front of me absorbing the brunt of the photographers’ assault were the ones able to attend the big 70th anniversary commemoration event held at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton (the fifth, Robert Hite, was too ill to travel).
For me, hearing the news of the passing of one of these final five surviving Raiders, Thomas Griffin, 96, last week was particularly poignant and thought-provoking. I really enjoyed meeting and interviewing Griffin. He was down-to-earth, honest, convivial and warm. It was as conversational an interview that I’ve ever had. In fact, at times while talking to each of the Raiders, I almost felt as though I was the one being interviewed – these men seemed genuinely interested in me, asking where I was from, why I had traveled to Dayton, why I was interested in their story and their extraordinary lives. The class, dignity, patience and unassuming personalities exhibited by these genuine American heroes – all of whom were nonagenarians – was so wonderfully refreshing. But there’s another reason why Griffin’s final flight skyward has proven so difficult to take. Griffin’s departure leaves not only not enough Raiders left for a full B-25 crew, but also leaves another void in America’s ever-dwindling pantheon of living heroes. And there’s virtually no one left, symbolically-speaking, to fill that void.
To me, this country was once a thriving, humming factory that cranked out heroes as easily and efficiently as it once produced quality automobiles. But for whatever reason, that epic assembly line ground to a halt years ago. With the exception of a small handful of innovators and inventors like the late Steve Jobs, America no longer produces heroes, leaders, pioneers, great, virile adventurers, risk-takers, men with strong moral and ethical constitutions, men of conscience and conviction. Instead, somewhere along the way, we began to outsource the job to the most unlikely suppliers, places like Hollywood, Washington and our professional sports leagues, all of which have failed mightily in trying to deliver upon the order. It’s no surprise then, that our country is in the predicament it is today. We have a thriving political class, a besieged middle class, a drowning lower class, an increasingly out-of-touch and unscrupulous wealthy elite class and a virtually extinct hero class. We’re running out of Thomas Griffins.
Militarily and in official capacities, it’s difficult to discern just who are our leaders nowadays. We have no visible Joneses, Chamberlains, Yorks, Perrys, Byrds, Doolittles, Lindberghs, MacArthurs, Pattons, Marshalls, Eisenhowers, Nimitzes, Halseys, Ridgways or Schwarzkopfs. I believe that we’ve had only four living Medal of Honor recipients in the past 40 years, or since the end of the Vietnam War (though this shortage might also be attributable to extreme stringency restrictions for America’s highest military honor). But seriously, when’s the last time there’s been a ticker tape parade, a celebratory ride down the “Canyon of Heroes,” for a worthy recipient of our nation’s adulation ?
The answer: nearly 20 years. The last one was held in 1994 for Senator/Astronaut John Glenn’s return from his second space mission. Now, we only have these once-grand celebratory events to celebrate championship victories by professional sports teams.
Militarily, it’s hard to tell if any heroes – outside of the dwindling number of stalwart young officers, non-coms and idealistic enlisted men who put themselves in harm’s way for pathetically little pay, or the special operations troops that never see their families and can’t find civilian jobs once they retire from their top secret world – still exist. Our branches of the service seem to be staffed by a succession of boring, uniformed robots. It seems like our current president fires anybody with more than two stars on his shoulders who displays a backbone or an ounce of intellect. Or else these men commit hara-kiri by not carefully watching their words around predatory media members or engaging in extra-marital affairs, both unrepentable sins given today’s super media saturated world. Our service academies, which reportedly now place more of an emphasis on demerits and academics than in creating dynamic problem-solvers, seem to mass-produce indistinguishable clones, senior officers more concerned with following stifling regulations to a T and padding their files and preserving careers than the needs of their men or their missions. Many elite institutions refuse to host ROTC programs on their campuses. And many middle-grade officers – potentially quality leaders-in-training – nowadays are growing so dissatisfied with the overly politicized services, the stratified caste systems therein and other superfluous “chickenshit” that they’re leaving in droves for jobs in the civilian private sector before they turn 30.
And speaking of chickenshit, how does one explain the Distinguished Warfare Medal? The Pentagon’s newest award, “the Nintendo Medal” reportedly outranks the Bronze Star and Purple Heart – awards typically earned by front-line soldiers serving in combat zones who receive wounds inflicted by the enemy – and is usually awarded to men who fly drones and similar craft via remote control from the safety of control rooms located thousands of miles away from actual danger. Thomas Griffin and his 79 comrades each received the Distinguished Flying Cross for their active participation in the Raid. Others who were wounded during the adventure received the Purple Heart and commendations from the Chinese Nationalist government. While there were many who helped, both directly and indirectly, make the Raid possible but did not directly participate, I can’t see awarding these individuals something that equates the awards received by Griffin and Co. for flying over enemy territory, weathering flak storms, for bailing out over occupied coastal China and eluding enemy patrols. Luckily, our current Pentagon staff and White House administration weren’t in charge in 1942, or anyone remotely connected to the Doolittle Raid in Washington or elsewhere in the States would have received something for their participation and be officially designated “Raiders.”
Politically, this nation has perhaps never faced a greater shortage of strong, faith-propelled, positive purpose-driven (read: those interested in providing true, Constitutionally-based governance and guidance for our country and not merely enriching themselves financially or pushing a dangerous, anti-American ideological agenda) politicians. Approval ratings for Congress have never been lower. Calling our legislators merely incompetent would be a compliment. Yet these individuals, in cities large and small (but especially in cities large, our major metropolitan centers) keep getting elected year after year, cycle after cycle, term after term. I guess H.L. Mencken was right (and is still right all these years later) when he said nearly a century ago that “the men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars.”
We used to be the land of the free and home of the brave. But Americans no longer idolize those who honor the ideals of freedom and exhibit bravery, those who are dedicated to the American beliefs of hard work being the determinant of success. The country no longer looks up to inventors, innovators, surgeons, scientists, soldiers, pilots, astronauts and engineers. Instead, reality TV stars, one-hit wonder musicians, drug-addled, mentally-unstabled performers have become the new heroes. Candle light vigils are held and flags lowered to half-mast for actors or singers that end their own lives due to drug addictions. America has, for some unexplainable reason, developed a ridiculous and what might perhaps prove to be fatal fascination with the inexperienced and the incompetent, the talentless and totally clueless, those whose lives are built more upon their words than deeds, their looks and hipness, on silicone and sensationalism, rather than real substance.
And it all starts at the top. This country has not had a real chief executive, an individual familiar with how all levels of government work, a man well-versed in both politics and the unique American political system of compromise and give-and-take, a man skilled in diplomacy both domestic and international, a man successful in both the public and private sectors, a man who saw combat first-hand, in more than 20 years: George Herbert Walker Bush. Not surprisingly, Bush I was a WWII fighter pilot, perhaps our last true political leader from the Greatest Generation. Today’s presidents have nothing approximating the long resumes that their predecessors enjoyed. Instead, they enjoy the pomp and perks of the presidency and know nothing of what true leadership means. These men enjoy pumped-up PR moments such as theatrical landings on aircraft carriers, are outright draft-dodgers or, perhaps worst of all, they attempt to take credit for the daring deeds that real heroes have accomplished largely on behalf of their friends, families and fellow countrymen, not said “leaders.” As a historian, when I first learned of the media-fueled chest-thumping and fist-bumping by the Obama administration in the aftermath of Seal Team Six’s dispatching of terrorist Osama bin Laden, my mind immediately flashed to find similar circumstances and situations in history. It ultimately landed in April 1943. I could not but help to wonder, imagine if F.D.R. had tried to take credit for shooting down Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto? Luckily, back then we had leaders who didn’t engage in such ridiculous attempts at usurping glory. Nor would our media have been complicit in such a farce. Sadly, times have changed.
The only geographic area more cut-off from reality, more dysfunctional than Washington, is Hollywood. The nation’s entertainment capital is just as clueless and out of touch with Main Street, USA. The PTB on the left coast feed us a steady programming diet of reality shows and special effects-laden films, fattening portions of poorly-written, plot-deficient tripe for an already obese viewing audience. Award-winning actors openly cavort with corrupt dictators and avowed adversaries. Others travel to Washington for showy summits with U.S. leaders to find solutions for pressing problems…taking place in other countries. Many adopt children in foreign countries because it’s fashionable – all while parentless American kids languish right here at home in overflowing orphanages. Others use the platforms provided by press junkets for ultra-violent films featuring excessive gun violence to express their disdain for the right to own firearms by rank-and-file Americans, the very people who purchase the tickets to said movies and make their lavish lifestyles possible. To paraphrase Simon & Garfunkel, “where have you gone Charlton Heston? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”
And what about athletes? By now, we’re almost inured to the multi-million dollar contracts, the demands, the egos, the soundbytes, the outrageous behavior. But as a former sportswriter, I thought I could say that I’ve seen it all…and then last week Dennis Rodman became pals with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. Rodman reportedly told George Stephanpoulos in his post-Pyongyang visit interview that Kim “is a good guy to me.” Wow. If he keeps up the diplomatic insanity, Rodman might just unseat Sean Penn, a BFF of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez who entertains the likes of the anti-American owners of Al-Jazeera while offering unsolicited commentary on stuff in which he knows nothing about, like the Falkland Islands controversy, in the running for the Jane Fonda Cup.
And those powerful men and women outside the military/political/Hollywood realm are proving to be increasingly unsavory characters, anti-heroes all. Insulated by large entourages and heavily-armed guard details, these individuals are even more out of touch with mainstream America than our actors and athletes. For example, contrast financial thug George Soros and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg with Andrew Carnegie. At one time, many of our nation’s ultra-successful businessmen, the wealthy elite, felt obligated to employ their personal fortunes to enrich and benefit other Americans. Carnegie’s vast estate helped build countless libraries and continues to fund passions for the arts and education. On the other hand, pompous jackwagons like Soros and Bloomberg feel entitled to use their billions and bullion to bully those with opposing political views, to peddle their personal ideology and superiority (no large sodas or firearms for you, peasant!) or purchase influence and even elections across the country. These men are a far cry from the Allen McLane’s of the nation. McLane was a little-known, dashing Revolutionary War hero, but also a member of the wealthy elite who was willing to walk the walk and use his personal fortune to pursue the ideals of freedom and liberty; McLane opened his own checkbook to raise, pay and equip an entire unit of soldiers to fight against the British.
To me, March 2013 is strangely reminiscent of April 1942. Only this time around, we’re beset mainly by problems of our own making, not the aggressive militaries of totalitarian foreign powers. Sequestration and other self-inflicted wounds. Financial crises. Cyber threats and nuclear saber-rattling from upstart foreign powers. The ongoing specter of Muslim extremist terrorism. Instead of confronting these problems head-on, we’re divided by and drowning in vigorous debate over social issues, marijuana legalization and marriage laws. Another dark hour is descending upon America. And this time we’re confronting it without any credible leadership. And I’m not the only one who sees the storm coming.
“The dangers that face our nation today are every bit as great as those we have faced in the past. The question is whether we have lost our capacity to endure hardship and sacrifice for future generations,” Dr. Benjamin Carson said last week in a post to his Facebook page.
So where is the hero class – the Doolittle Raiders, the Thomas Griffins – those who will volunteer to fly against all odds to help save the day? Where are those who can lead from the front, those who possess the requisite leadership experience, the ability to unite us and prepare us to endure hardship and sacrifice on the long road to ultimate victory?
Rest in peace, Mr. Griffin. I sincerely hope you enjoyed your few minutes in the glow of the bright lights of fame – the flash bulbs – last April. You, unlike so many others in America today, earned it.