President Obama at Friday's signing ceremony. / Jacquelyn Martin, AP
President Obama signed a pair of bills Friday conferring the Congressional Gold Medal on two legendary groups of World War II pilots.
The honorees are members of the "Doolittle Raiders," pilots who engineered a famous bombing raid on Tokyo, and the elite group known as the American Fighter Aces.
Named for then-Col. Jimmy Doolittle, the Doolittle Raiders flew a highly publicized raid over Tokyo on April 18, 1942. Coming four-and-a-half months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Tokyo raid boosted American confidence and morale.
Lt. Richard Cole, who was only 26 years old when he served as Doolittle's co-pilot during that Tokyo raid, said he is pleased President Obama and Congress are recognizing the Doolittle Raiders.
Sixteen bombers of the U.S. Army Air Forces, each with a crew of five, were launched from the USS Hornet to bomb military targets in Tokyo and other places on Honshu island. Of the 80 Doolittle Raiders on that mission, only four are still alive and 98-year-old Cole has become the small group's unofficial spokesman.
"I wish they were all here," Cole said. "I'm pleased to be helping out."
Cole traveled to Washington this week from his home in Comfort, Texas, to serve as grand marshal of the National Memorial Day Parade.
The medal for the American Fighter Aces honors those elite pilots who are credited with destroying five or more enemy aircraft in aerial combat.
More than 60,000 U.S. military fighter pilots have flown since World War I, but fewer than 1,500 have been honored with the status of Fighter Ace.
"These patriots are the best of the best, the cream of the crop in air-to-air combat," said Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, during his floor speech earlier this week on the American Fighter Aces legislation. "Their efforts have shortened wars and saved lives, yet they have never been rightfully honored -- at least until now."
Johnson and Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., sponsored the bill to award these men the Congressional Gold Medal.
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