Dick Cole, last of the Doolittle Raiders, dies at 103

Apr 9, 2019, 4:55 PM
Planes like this one were used in the Doolittle Raid. The last Doolittle Raider has died. Photo: Getty Images

(CNN) — Richard “Dick” Cole didn’t just have a front-row seat to history. On an April day in 1942 — just four months after Pearl Harbor — he sat next to Jimmy Doolittle as 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers lumbered down the deck of an aircraft carrier to begin a mission that ended in a huge morale boost for the United States.

Eighty gallant men volunteered for that successful mission — which turned out to be a one-way attack — vengeance for Japan’s strike on Hawaii that crippled the US Navy fleet and left 2,403 dead.

Cole, the last surviving Doolittle Raider, died Tuesday in San Antonio, the US Air Force announced. He was 103.

“Lt. Col. Dick Cole reunited with the Doolittle Raiders in the clear blue skies today,” said Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson.

The Doolittle mission called for crews to bomb five Japanese cities and fly on to China, where the men would connect with friendly forces who would help them get home.

On April 18, 1942, Doolittle and his co-pilot Cole sat in the cockpit of their B-25 going over a preflight checklist with the engines running. The USS Hornet was in the seas below Japan.

“I was setting the engine cowl flaps and watching to make sure the engines didn’t overheat,” Cole, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, told CNN in 2016.

Both Cole and Doolittle kept their hands on the engine throttles to make sure the levers didn’t accidentally slip downward and — in case of engine failure — to quickly bring the plane to a stop.

With his engines revving hard, Doolittle released the brakes, sending the plane barreling toward the ship’s edge.

Seconds later, the first raiders were airborne.

A bomber takeoff from the deck of an aircraft carrier had never been done. The crew found themselves scrambling to make a hasty takeoff, 12 hours ahead of schedule, after they were spotted by Japanese fishing boats. The early departure also meant the planes would likely run out of fuel before landing in friendly China.

Cole grew up in Dayton, Ohio, admiring Doolittle, who set and broke many aeronautical records. Now here he was hurtling down the narrow deck of the Hornet in a small cockpit with Doolittle. His job? Making sure Doolittle was happy, he said, and handling the flaps on the plane so the engines wouldn’t overheat. Cole said people thought the takeoff would be the most dangerous part of the mission.

“It turned out to be one of the easiest things,” he said. Cole later added, “Besides, I was flying with the best pilot, so why worry?”

The B-25 takeoff was filmed by US military cameramen on the Hornet and on nearby ships. Their fellow Doolittle Raiders waited anxiously in the 15 B-25 bombers behind them. Hundreds of the Hornet’s crew watched from the deck and the bridge in suspense. The order had been given. If a plane stalled or a technical problem developed approaching takeoff, it would be pushed into the sea in order to get the other planes in the air on time.

The raiders flew at very low altitudes to avoid detection, 200 feet above the water. The planes arrived over Tokyo 12 hours ahead of schedule, making it a daylight raid instead of the planned night raid. A coincidental air raid drill conducted in Tokyo that morning did not prepare military defenses for the Doolittle Raiders. Bombs were dropped on their targets, oil storage facilities and military installations.

Cole told CNN in 2017, “I felt pretty good that we had done what we were supposed to do.” Then the race was on, as fuel ran low, to land in mainland China and seek help from Chinese supporters who were living under Japanese rule.

They didn’t make it.

Doolittle ordered his crew to abandon the plane. Cole and almost all the Raiders had no experience jumping out of aircraft. In darkness and stormy weather, Cole leaped with his parachute and learned one thing quickly. “They don’t give a Purple Heart for self-inflicted injuries. I gave myself a black eye” in pulling the ripcord so hard, he said.

He eventually landed in a pine tree and stayed there overnight. Chinese nationalists found him and brought him to a building where he was surprised to encounter Doolittle. The mission’s commander went to the crash site and sat morosely on the wreckage, telling one of the crew that he felt the entire mission was a failure and he would be court-martialed.

Doolittle feared the worst for the 16 planes. Engineer Paul Leonard consoled him, telling Doolittle he was wrong. He promised Doolittle the mission would be viewed as a success and the crews would be hailed as heroes. Back home, the raid was stunning news, with screaming headlines about the raid on the front page of daily newspapers. Japan was shocked. Cole said, “It told the people of Japan their island could be struck by air.”

Everything didn’t go completely smoothly. Eleven crews had to bail out of their planes. Four bombers crash-landed. Pilot Ted Lawson lost a leg. He would go on to write the best-selling book “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo,” later a hit 1944 film. One crew flew to the Soviet Union and was interned before eventually being set free. Eight men were captured. One starved to death in a Japanese prison camp and three were executed by the Japanese.

Cole and others went right back into the war after the Doolittle Raid. Cole flew transport planes carrying cargo and glider-borne troops in India, China and Burma. Some of the Raiders were killed fighting in the European theater.

After the war ended, the crews returned to civilian life. Doolittle lived up to a preraid promise of a party if the attack succeeded. The tradition would go on. A special feature of every reunion was the crew sharing a cognac in silver goblets with each Raider’s name engraved right-side up and upside-down. If a Raider passed away during that year, the goblet would be turned over.

A toast was made each year until finally there were only four Raiders left alive in 2013. Cole gave the final toast after the remaining four Raiders agreed that their age and inability to travel would make it the last reunion. Cole raised his glass before a large audience at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton and said, “I propose a toast to those who were lost on the mission and to those who have passed away since,” adding, “May they rest in peace.”

In June 2016, David Thatcher, a tail gunner, died, leaving Cole as the last surviving Doolittle Raider.

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