Q&A: The Last Living Doolittle Raider

It had been 132 days since Pearl Harbor, and Allied forces were on the run. Then on April 18, 1942, 16 American bombers led by Jimmy Doolittle descended on Tokyo to send a clear message: America had only begun to fight. Lt. Col. Richard Cole, of Dayton, was Doolittle’s co-pilot. At age 101—and on the mission’s 75th anniversary—he’s the only Raider still living.
Lt. Col. Richard Cole

Illustration by Pablo

The first time he saw Japan, he was 26 years old and in the front seat on a flight into history. He and 79 of his fellow airmen left behind a country in shock, factories burning, naval dry docks blazing, and ammunition dumps exploding. The Jimmy Doolittle raid, 75 years ago this spring and immortalized in the movie Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, punctured Japan’s confidence and, back home in America, helped to ease the pain and anger of Pearl Harbor.

Sitting in the cockpit next to Doolittle himself was Richard Cole of Dayton—now 101 years old and the last survivor of the Doolittle Raiders. Cole, who has moved to Comfort, Texas, will return to his hometown this month to commemorate the raid’s diamond anniversary and hopefully take a sip of cognac that has become a tradition at the reunions. This time, he’ll drink alone.

The Pacific was a dark place in the early months of 1942. Japanese troops had invaded the Philippines, forcing General Douglas MacArthur to flee. The U.S. Navy had been routed in the Battle of the Java Sea. More than 1,000 American soldiers had died in the Bataan Death March. America needed a victory.

President Roosevelt himself authorized the Doolittle raid, aware it might only be a military pinprick but adamant that it would provide the home front with a needed morale boost.

Cole, who had learned to fly just 10 miles from where the Wright Brothers had built the first airplane, was a lieutenant in the Army Air Force stateside, and spoiling to get into the fight. When his squadron and three others were ordered to report to an army air base in Columbia, South Carolina, officers told them they were looking for volunteers for a dangerous mission. Everyone stepped up, Cole remembered, and those chosen were sent to Eglin Field in near Pensacola, Florida, for training.

“We were all young and with no combat experience so we wanted to get in there and fight,” Cole explains. “I guess we were all pretty naïve. I know I was.”

The volunteers soon met Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, who was already a legendary test pilot. Cole recalls he put the men at ease immediately with his low-key, friendly manner. But he was also mysterious. “He told us ‘look, you just gotta trust me,’” Cole recalls. “He told us if we wanted to change our minds, there would be no repercussions.” Nearly no one was sure what he meant. But no one left either.

After a series of training exercises in their modified B-25 Mitchell medium-range bombers, the volunteers (who were designated the 17th Bombardment Group), left for the west coast where they rendezvoused with their naval counterparts with the USS Hornet. Cole said it wasn’t until the second day at sea that the men found out where they were headed.

Tokyo itself.

“The PA announcement came on and told us. There was a lot of jumping and yelling and then it got quiet because we all realized it wasn’t a game anymore,” Cole says.

Indeed it wasn’t a game, but it was a first. A bomber carrying a full load of four 500-pound bombs had never taken off from an aircraft carrier that sported just 450 feet of runway. Now, 16 of them crowded on the deck were armed and ready to go, the sea tossing and turning beneath them.

“We knew we could do it,” Cole says matter-of-factly. “We had the Navy come in and show us the trick in Pensacola and it turns out it was pretty simple. It just took a little technique and good judgment by the pilot.” Cole then goes on to explain in some detail—and 75 years after the mission—the precise angle of the wing and the thrust needed, as if the mission had occurred just the other day.

The raid was supposed to have been launched at night with the bomb runs occurring just after dawn. “But we were spotted by a Japanese navy patrol ship and we sunk it but we also figured they’d had time to radio a warning,” Cole explains. “Surprising them was important so we had to go now.”

The squadron took off around 8 o’clock on the morning of April 18, 1942, and the Japanese coast came into view about four hours later. “Beautiful,” Cole recalls. “We were flying at only 200 feet to avoid radar so it all came up pretty fast. The seashore was nice and clean and there were people out swimming and boating. They were waving at us.” It was Saturday and families were enjoying the weekend, apparently assuming those bombers were theirs.

Doolittle’s plane, with Cole as the co-pilot, was over Tokyo first, a little after noon. He never saw the bombs hit.

“We carried incendiary bombs so our job was to light the way for everyone else,” Cole says. “We hit a factory but, once you release, you get out of there as fast as you can and you can’t see (from the pilot’s seat) what’s behind you. We felt it though.”

Doolittle’s bombers hit several targets in Tokyo, Yokohama, the Yokosuka Naval Yard, and the nearby cities of Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe. While the squadron encountered anti-aircraft and small arms fire and a few Japanese fighters, all 16 bombers exited the country safely.

They were headed west for China. And they were running out of gas.

Returning to the carrier was never in the plan. Taking off was one thing. Sixteen planes coming in hot on a rolling deck was quite another. China was always the plan but running out of gas wasn’t.

Cole explained that the abrupt start of the mission, when they’d been spotted by the patrol boat, messed up the math and overstretched the capability of the modified fuel tanks. They were 200 miles east of the planned launch point so “I figured we were going to end up about 180 miles short,” Cole recalls. That was going to put the squadron in the East China Sea.

Fortunately, Cole says, a warm front over China spawned a strong easterly air current, creating a tailwind that pushed them forward and over land. “They call that a kamikaze wind and it’s supposed to be lucky for the Japanese,” Cole says, emphasizing the irony.

Cole was the next to the last man out of the plane, jumping just before Doolittle. As he parachuted to the pitch black earth, he didn’t know if he would land in enemy territory or among friendlies. Where he landed was in a pine tree, gently and quietly.

“I stayed there all night,” he says, chuckling a little. “I was about 12 feet off the ground but I didn’t know that because it was so dark I couldn’t see the hand in front of my face.” Cole says he decided to make himself comfortable and wait until dawn.

“It was a good thing I did because if I had tried to get down and walked in one direction, I would have fallen down a deep ravine,” he says. When light broke, he climbed down, packed his parachute, checked his compass and headed west where he soon found a friendly group of Chinese guerrilla fighters who had been looking for the Raiders.

The guerrillas showed him a pencil sketch of an airplane surrounded by five parachutes. Cole nodded and the soldiers took him to a nearby sod hut where smoke from burning candles created a haze. Huddled inside with a few other Chinese soldiers was Doolittle. “That was a good feeling,” he says.

Of the 80 Doolittle Raiders, one died bailing out over land, two drowned when they ditched over the ocean, and eight were captured by the Japanese who executed three of them after a show trial. One of the captured airmen died of disease in a prison camp, and the four survivors endured terrible hardships until they were liberated in 1945.

Cole remained in the Pacific theatre flying missions over the Himalayas into China from India and over Burma. He is your typical hero. He didn’t think then, and he doesn’t think now, that he did anything more than his job.

And now he’s the last man standing. The Raiders stayed close over the years and got together for formal reunions several times starting in the 1950s. They started a scholarship fund and kept their story alive at conventions and military reunions. But their ranks have now dwindled to one with the passing of 94-year-old David Thatcher last June.

In 2015, Cole and Thatcher met in Washington to receive—on behalf of all the Raiders, one of the highest honors that can be bestowed on a civilian—the Congressional Gold Medal. Doolittle himself had been awarded the Medal of Honor shortly after the raid. Many of the other Raiders earned medals for bravery over the course of World War Two.

A tradition at Doolittle reunions has been the reading of the names of the heroes while 80 silver goblets, each engraved with the name of a Raider, are turned upside down to signify their passing. On April 17, Cole will be at the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the raid and watch that solemn ceremony.

He’ll remember Thatcher, the ill-fated crew of Bomber 16 who all became POWs, and his crewmates aboard Bomber 1: Hank Potter, Fred Braemer, Paul Leonard, and, of course, Jimmy Doolittle himself.

If you go:
Doolittle 75th Anniversary Commemoration
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
April 17–18, 2017
1100 Spaatz Street
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base
Featuring Flyover and Display of B-25 bombers

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