The last surviving member of the Doolittle Raiders, who gave the United States a much-needed boost during the dark days of World War II, has passed away.
Retired Lt. Col. Dick Cole died Tuesday in San Antonio. He was 103.
Cole served as co-pilot in then-Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle’s No. 1 bomber during the 1942 raid to strike Japan that helped lift America’s spirit in the months after Pearl Harbor. The Doolittle raid was comprised of 80 U.S. Army Air Forces airmen in 16 B-25B Mitchell bombers that were launched from the aircraft carrier Hornet, with no promise of returning safely. It took the bombers about four hours to reach the target of Tokyo, about 650 nautical miles from the Hornet.
“We all shared the same risks and had no realization of the positive affect our efforts had on the morale of America at the time,” Cole said in 2013. “We are grateful we had the opportunity to serve and are mindful that our nation benefitted from our service.”
After dropping their bombs, Doolittle’s crew set out to land in China, refuel and then continue to the western part of the country. A severe rainstorm interrupted those plans, forcing the crew to bail out before their fuel ran out. Cole’s parachute got stuck in a tree. After freeing himself, he walked to a Chinese village, where he was safely reunited with the crew.
Overall, only three of the 80 men were killed during the raid that was conducted 77 years ago this month. Eight others were captured and held as POWs, four of whom died during captivity.
In November 2013, Cole and two of the three other remaining survivors at that time performed the final toasting ceremony for their fallen comrades at the United States Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. A fourth survivor was unable to attend.
The ceremony included a roll call of each of the Raiders’ names, only interrupted by three calls of “Here” by Cole, Lt. Col. Edward Saylor and Staff Sgt. David Thatcher. Afterward, Cole broke the seal of an 1896 bottle of Hennessey cognac, per the wishes of Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, the group’s commanding officer.
On the morning of the April 1942 raid, Doolittle promised his men he would throw the biggest party they ever saw if the raid was successful. After the war, the Raiders reunited to celebrate Doolittle’s birthday in December 1946, and that get-together turned into an annual ritual that concluded in 2013.
During the 2013 ceremony, Gen. Mark Welsh, chief of staff for the Air Force, said current airmen will keep the Raiders’ legacy alive. For example, he noted that during the first night of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the first bombs dropped over Baghdad included the words “Make the Doolittle Raiders proud.”
At the memorial service, Cole recalled signing up for a dangerous mission he saw on a bulletin board. It turned out to be a callout for volunteers for the Doolittle raid. “So, I signed my name,” he said nonchalantly.
“Yes, sir, you did,” Welsh said. “And you and Col. Doolittle and your brothers inspired a nation and you turned the tide of a war. And we are forever grateful.”