Just days shy of the 77th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid, Lieutenant Colonel Richard “Dick” Cole, the sole surviving Doolittle Raider, flew west this morning. He was 103 years old.
I had the great privilege of working with Cole at airshows and through veteran services. We laughed over him telling my father he was getting old on his birthday and his standard answer to being “pickled” whenever someone would ask how he was able to be so spry for a man of his age. Even into his late nineties, he was able to crawl up the hatch of the B-25 Mitchell Bomber and assume his position in the right-hand seat to take a flight. A humble hero and perfect gentleman, Cole was always eager to visit with others and share his passion for history through his memories. In doing so, he created new ones. Cole related his military experiences in four Veterans History Project interviews including one with the Reichelt Oral History Program at Florida State University in 2004, one with Senator Lugar’s office in 2010, one with the Daughters of the American Revolution in Fredrick Chapter in 2014, and then with the Atlanta History Center in 2017. Although the collections all vary in content, Cole’s tremendous story of the heart of a volunteer endures.
As a young boy growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Cole spent his childhood dazzled by aircraft. Idolizing Charles Lindberg and Jimmy Doolittle, Cole participated the Airplane Model League of America, “flying” balsa wood planes. It was not long until he achieved his dream of taking to the skies.
At 26 years old, Cole volunteered for a secret mission with the Army Air Corp and “got mixed up” with his hero, Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle. Serving as the co-pilot with Crew Number 1, Cole and 79 other airmen risked everything on April 18th, 1942. In reply to the attack on Pearl Harbor, 16 B-25 Mitchell Bombers soared off the deck of the USS Hornet (CV-8) and bombed Japan in the first air operation strike on the Japanese Home Islands during World War II. After being spotted by a Japanese picket boat, the planes left ahead of schedule and without ample fuel. Cole and his crew were forced to bail out of their aircraft after the bombing, landing in China. Though they originally thought the mission had failed due to the relatively minor damage on the ground, they wound up returning home as heroes. Their mission boosted morale on the U.S. home front, sending a message to Japan that the U.S. would not go quietly into the night.
Cole remained in China after the raid, staying there until late June of 1943. In the same year, he volunteered for Project 9, which led to the creation of the 1st Air Commando Group that engineered the aerial invasion of Burma. He continued his service until his retirement from the U.S. Air Force in 1966.
In his interview with Senator Lugar’s office, Cole was asked what advice he would give for generations of students who might listen to his story. His response was:
Find what you enjoy and do everything you can to achieve it as a profession.
Whether you met him at an event or watched his oral history, Cole enriched our lives through his service well beyond his generation’s war. He kept the stories of the Doolittle Raiders alive for several generations to follow. As custodians of these treasured stories, I hope that we never forget and continue to share these important moments in our nation’s history with our future generations. You never know who may be inspired.
While the man is gone, his legacy endures. We stand on the shoulders of giants.