How the last living Doolittle Raider keeps memory of aircrews alive
Standing proudly in front of a B-25 Mitchell on display for a recent airshow in the central Texas town of Burnet, retired Lt. Col. Richard Cole slowly walked up to the antique bomber and clutched one of its propeller blades.
The last surviving Doolittle Raider, who had just marked his 101st birthday a few days before, smiled as he reminisced in the shadow of the bomber — a link to his storied past.
"When we got the B-25, it was a kick in the butt," he later said, adding that he first flew the B-18 Bolo out of flight school. "It was fast and very maneuverable, with a good, steady bombing platform. You could fly it all over."
Seventy-plus years ago, he co-piloted a similar bomber alongside then-Lt. Col. James Doolittle during a pivotal mission April 18, 1942, that helped turn the tide for the allies in the Pacific theater of World War II.
As the final member of the famed 80-man Army Air Forces unit, Cole was chosen to announce the name of the Air Force's newest bomber, the B-21 Raider, at the Air Force Association's Air, Space and Cyber Conference on Sept. 19 in Washington, D.C.
"I've never flown in any of the modern bombers so it's pretty hard to realize how all of the improvements have meant to aviation," he said at the Sept. 10 airshow. "All I can say is that the B-25 was like having a Ford Model T, (and now pilots are) getting into a Mustang."
Following the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Doolittle developed a plan to retaliate with a daring air raid on Japan. Without escort fighters, he and the other crewmembers flew 16 modified Army B-25s off an aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet, for a one-way trip that had the makings of a suicide mission. The plan called for the aircraft, which were incapable of landing back on the aircraft carrier, to bomb industrial and military targets in five cities on the Japanese home islands and then continue on to friendly airfields in China.
Forced to launch 10 hours earlier than planned, due to the task force being spotted by a Japanese patrol boat, many aircrews later had to bail out of their fuel-parched aircraft after dropping their bomb loads. Doolittle's crew, including Cole, parachuted into China and linked up with Chinese guerillas operating behind Japanese lines who helped them escape.
"The main memory I have was when my parachute opened," Cole said of the mission. "But that was part of the job. I'd rather be sitting here than worried about a parachute jump."
Being alone to tell the Raiders' story these days has been something of a paradox for Cole.
"You can't help but be happy that you're here but on the other side of the coin you also wish that the people who were with you were here too," he said. "But you know that that's not possible so you have to live with it."
The average age of the Raiders during the mission was 22, while Cole was a 26-year-old lieutenant, according to his daughter, Cindy Cole Chal.
"Dad was older on the raid," she said. "Nobody thought that Dad would be the last one, even though he's been in excellent health."
Former Staff Sgt. David Thatcher was the second to last living Raider before he died at the age of 94. He was buried with full military honors June 27 in Montana.
As a 20-year-old gunner in Flight Crew No. 7, then-Cpl. Thatcher saved his four other crewmembers when their B-25 crash-landed into the sea near the Chinese coast after it bombed Japanese factories in Tokyo. He pulled them to safety on the surrounding beach and applied life-saving medical treatment, despite having injuries himself. He later earned the Silver Star for his actions.
Meanwhile, Cole parachuted into rainy weather at night and landed in a tree located on precarious terrain.
"I was fortunate in that I never touched the ground. My parachute drifted over a tall pine tree and caught on top leaving me about 10 feet off the ground," he recounted in a 1973 letter posted on the official Doolittle Raider website. "At daybreak I was able to see that the terrain was very rough and had I tried to look around at night; probably would have fallen down a very steep hill."
Once the sun rose, Cole walked westward and the next day he found an outpost belonging to the Chinese guerillas, the letter states.
On April 18, 2015, Cole and Thatcher were presented the Congressional Gold Medal for the Raiders' efforts, the highest civilian honor given by Congress.
In his speech, a playful Cole couldn't resist a touch of humor.
"Tonight's affair couldn't have been planned more accurately," Cole said. "As I remember, the mission was over, it was Saturday night on the 18th of April and about this time David Thatcher was on the beach in China saving the rest of his crew and I was hanging in my parachute in a tree."
Also at the ceremony, Thatcher spoke candidly as he gave advice to today's Airmen.
"Be prepared for anything you run into — we weren't," he said. "Learn everything you possibly can, and be good at it."
Seven Raiders died during the mission: three were killed in action while another three were captured and executed and one died of disease in captivity.
The bombing runs did little damage but the mission rekindled the morale of the American people and struck fear into the Japanese with aircraft reaching their homeland.
"Knowing that we did the mission and did it like it was supposed to be done, we felt pretty good about it," Cole said.
In response, the Japanese maneuvered their forces from around Australia and India to the Central Pacific, and sent two aircraft carriers to Alaska.
"The Japanese thought we were going to make more visits. But we didn't have any equipment to do it and we had no plans for it," Cole said. "For some reason they moved two carriers to Alaska, thinking that's where we came from. When they did that, it evened up the number of carriers we had available for Midway."
The Battle of Midway proved to be a major turning point in the war. Believing their Central Pacific flank to be vulnerable because of the Doolittle Raid, the Japanese launched an invasion force to secure the isolated atoll of Midway to establish a base and airfield. Unaware that U.S. Naval Intelligence had broken their naval codes and knew the date and location of the impending attack, the Japanese sailed directly into an ambush set by three U.S. carriers.
When the smoke cleared, U.S. Navy dive-bombers had sunk four Japanese carriers, the Akagi, Kaga, Soryu and Hiryu, all members of the six-carrier force that had launched the attack on Pearl Harbor, and more than 3,000 men, including many experienced combat pilots. The U.S. lost one carrier, the USS Yorktown, and about 300 men. The Japanese remained on the defensive for the rest of the war.
"When the time came for the Battle of Midway, the (U.S.) Navy was able to win and that started the Japanese on the downhill," he said.
Nowadays, Cole has shifted his focus away from the twin-engine bomber to his tractor and lawnmower. He refuses to let his age stand in the way of his daily chores. So when not traveling for events, he tends to his acreage in Comfort, Texas, about an hour's drive northwest from San Antonio.
"People ask me if I'm getting any flying time and I say, 'Well, I'm getting a lot of single-engine time with the lawnmower," he said, chuckling.
To keep the memory of Doolittle and the rest of the Raiders alive, he helps sell his book, "Dick Cole's War," which documents not only the Doolittle Raid, but his service after that mission with the First Air Commandos in Burma. Proceeds from the book go into a scholarship fund in Doolittle's name for students in the aviation field.
Cahl estimates her father has put in hundreds of thousands of dollars from the sales of books and signed lithograph prints into the fund to honor Doolittle, who died in 1993.
"All the time when I was flying with Colonel Doolittle, I was in awe over the fact that I was sitting next to him," Cole said. "He put the word 'team' in the forefront of the English language."
Now the sole survivor, Cole wants no part being the poster child for the historic mission.
"You did the mission. You did what you were supposed to do," he said. "The people who were involved are all passing (away) and that's the way it ends.
"I didn't think any of the Raiders wanted to be singled out. We just wanted to be part of the big picture."