In celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid, Lt Col Dick Cole, as the sole surviving member of the Doolittle Raiders has been making trips from his Texas home all over the United States.
At 101, Lt Col Cole would have much rather had some of his buddies to share this incredible anniversary, but sadly he has had to do alone, but not really alone. Most recently at the Museum of the Air Force, Lt Col Cole and a "few" B25's made for an incredible sight. Georgetown's own B25 Panchito was front and center, representing Plane 1, which was flown by Jimmy Doolittle and co-pilot, Lt Col Cole in the celebration of the historic flight with 17 B-25's.
Cole is best known as Doolittle’s co-pilot on the famous Tokyo Raid. It was a singularly bold mission, a one-way trip with no promise of a return home, a strike that stunned Japan, buoyed American morale and altered the course of the Pacific war by prompting changes in enemy plans. All of this is why the story holds up so well 73 years later, but he’s the first to say there have been many other breaks over his century, as well as tragedy and loss, and his life isn’t about any single one of them.
“I feel like the Tokyo Raid is pretty beat up. I think there are more fertile stories to tell,” Cole says before walking the 100 yards from his single-story brick home in the Texas Hill Country to his mailbox.
Lt Col Cole works in his barn, tending to fruit-bearing trees on his four-acre spread, cutting the grass with a 1949 Ford tractor and fixing things when they break. The old tractor’s burned-out ignition switch is his latest project, as is a Weed Eater that rests on a pair of wooden sawhorses, the assembly directions waiting to be read.
This might seem amazing for a man showing classic signs of old age. He wears hearing aids in each ear and sometimes stops a thought in mid-sentence, losing it the way a mist vanishes suddenly on a damp, cloudy morning. He rises slowly when the phone rings and walks with a pronounced stoop, but gets to where he’s going. Dick, at 101, puts most people to shame because of the stamina he has. He likes being almost the last person to leave, even now, he gets more tired easily, but still has the heart of someone much younger.
A sense of determination radiates from him. Cole wears a pedometer and is quite conscious of the need to remain mobile. He once joked, “The secret is you’ve got to keep moving like the sheriff is after you,” and so he does, walking a mile every day.
Cole is in a class of his own in a nation where only a fraction of the original 16 million World War II veterans are still alive. The 80 Doolittle Raiders aboard 16 bombers that flew off the USS Hornet and bombed Tokyo, Nagoya and Yokosuka on April 18, 1942 are down to just Lt Col Cole.
They came to the mission as volunteers who had no idea where they were headed while training for short takeoffs under the tutelage of a naval officer in the Florida Panhandle, and had reason to worry after Hornet put to sea. Cole, though, was amazed to be on a mission with his boyhood hero, and everyone concentrated on their jobs as the Mitchell bombers spun up on the aircraft carrier. “We didn’t have much time to think about what was going to happen,” said Thatcher, a gunner aboard the Ruptured Duck, a plane made famous in the movie. “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.”
Still, it was risky business. Doolittle’s crew would be the first to ever fly a bomber off an aircraft carrier. They were supposed to launch on the evening of April 19 and fly 400 miles to Japan, but took off early that morning after the Hornet spotted an enemy trawler. The bombers flew 645 miles, meaning many of them might not make it to airfields clandestinely set up for them in China.
Doolittle and his crew bailed out over a mountainous part of China during a thunderstorm. Thatcher fell unconscious and four other crewmen were seriously injured after the Ruptured Duck crashed on a Japanese-held island. In all, three raiders were executed, one died in prison, another was killed bailing out. Two other died of injuries sustained in plane crashes. Eight were captured.
All were given the Distinguished Flying Cross. Doolittle received the Medal of Honor and was promoted to one-star general. Years later, Lt Col Dick Cole received, on behalf of the Doolittle Raiders, The Medal of Freedom.
Most of the others got home, with 19 Doolittle Raiders later dying in North Africa and the China-India-Burma theater of war. Cole stayed in Asia flying cargo planes for 14 months before briefly landing a sweet stateside job in Tulsa, Oklahoma, testing B-24s that were fresh out of the factory. It is this time, working in the China-India-Burma theater that Lt Col Dick Cole feels like he did his greatest work. Sure, he doesn't mind the accolades received for being a part of such a historic mission, but it is the quiet work he did later that is the most meaningful.
These days Cole insists on remaining as independent as possible . His daughter, Cindy Chal, is nearby and sees him every day, but tries not to hover over him. Talk with him for long and it becomes obvious that he’s happy and is enjoying life to the fullest. He still loves to tinker and most recently told Larry Kelley, when he called and Larry asked what he was doing, said he was working on putting a carburetor back together on his kitchen table.
“All of it,” Cole said, “because no matter how you look at it, all the parts made the whole.”