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Last Surviving ‘Doolittle Raider’ Recalls Crucial World War II Mission

7 minute read

Another December 7 has come and gone—that makes 75 of them since the date had its rendezvous with infamy. Americans marked the shocking attack on Pearl Harbor in ways large and small. One gathering in Kansas City was a resonant reminder that, for all the drama and brutality of that Sunday morning in Hawaii, the most important thing about Pearl Harbor was what happened next.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt foretold the story in his famous speech to Congress on Dec. 8, 1941. “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory,” he declared.

But how to begin? The world of 1941 was a world in which distance still mattered, a time before jet engines and rocketry, and Japan seemed impossibly far away. In his race to strike a blow, Roosevelt blessed an audacious and daring expedition led by a brilliant daredevil named James H. Doolittle. The audience in Kansas City heard all about it from the last survivor of Doolittle’s raiders: Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” Cole, age 101.

With the Hawaii-based Pacific Fleet in ruins, Doolittle was assigned to gin up an aerial attack on the main island of Japan. His credentials were impeccable. A renowned test pilot, owner of numerous air-speed records, Doolittle earned the first doctorate in aeronautical engineering awarded in the United States. Within two weeks after the Japanese surprise attack, Doolittle advised Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold of the Army Air Corps that B-25 bombers would just barely fit on an American aircraft carrier thanks to their stubby wings. They ought to be able to take off, he calculated—though they could not possibly land.

These facts shaped the plan. Some two dozen crews of five men each—pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier and gunner—volunteered for a hazardous mission, though they weren’t told what it might be. They were whisked away for special training in super-short, low-speed takeoffs while their planes were modified to hold more fuel and less equipment. And just four months after the fateful Sunday, they were aboard the U.S.S. Hornet, sailing east toward Japan.

In a conversation with his biographer, Park University professor Dennis Okerstrom, Cole explained that he nearly lost his place in the mission when the pilot on his bomber got sick. After a hasty consultation with his crewmates, Cole hurried to plead with the higher-ups for a substitute before the reserve crews heard about the vacancy and tried to elbow his team aside.

As it happened, a very experienced pilot was looking for a seat: Jimmy Doolittle himself. Shrugging off Gen. Arnold’s opinion that the famous aviator was too valuable to risk, “the old man” (Doolittle was 45) took command of the plane, with Cole as his co-pilot. “We were the excess baggage that came along with it,” he told the audience.

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The raid was scheduled for the night of April 19, 1942. Doolittle and Cole, in the lead bomber, were to drop incendiary tubes over Tokyo to set fires that would guide the trailing crews. Then the raiders would fly onward to China in hopes of landing in territory not held by Japanese troops.

But on April 18, amid a Pacific gale, enemy picket boats spotted the Hornet and its escorts. Worried that their surprise had been spoiled, Doolittle ordered his men into their planes. Sitting in the cockpit of the twin-tailed B-25, Cole looked down the flight deck into the heavy seas. “Actually, it looked a lot shorter than I thought,” he recalled.

Doolittle revved the engines as he stood on the brakes. When the propellers were screaming, he let the plane jump forward. The combination of the high winds and the ship at full speed gave him the lift he needed. Circling once, he headed for Tokyo, and 15 bombers followed his lead.

No one had told the two pilots that automated controls had been removed to shave weight. They found themselves, as Cole put it, “manhandling the plane” over hundreds of miles of ocean at low altitude to hinder detection. Nervous and bored at the same time, Cole began tapping his foot to the rhythm of “The Wabash Cannonball,” until Doolittle silenced him with a dirty look.

The raiders reached the island of Honshu in broad daylight, encountering ineffective anti-aircraft fire. Their bombs did more damage to Japan’s sense of invulnerability than to any physical targets. Fear of another attack inspired the Imperial Navy to extend its perimeter in the Pacific, which led to the Battle of Midway in June 1942. The American victory at Midway was the beginning of the long and bloody end for the Japanese.

But with Tokyo ablaze behind him, Doolittle now faced the consequences of launching a day early. The flight to the targets was longer than planned. Navigator Hank Potter informed the pilots that they were running low on fuel. Cole noticed sharks just beneath the surface of the China Sea, which stretched beyond the horizon ahead. “We had a bit of conversation,” he allowed, concerning the best way to ditch a plane in rolling waves.

Miraculously—or so it seemed to Cole—a storm arose at just that moment to send a 30-knot tailwind in their direction. The anxious fliers saw the water turn from the “greenish-blue” of the deep sea to the “somewhat tan color that told me we were near landfall.” Soon, it was dark, and the fuel gauges all read empty, and one by one the crewmembers stood by an open hatch and leapt into the rain.

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It was Cole’s first parachute jump. “I was so calm, cool and collected that I pulled the ripcord so hard I gave myself a black eye,” he recounted. A pine tree caught his chute and, after sleeping a bit, he climbed down to safety. Friendly Chinese helped him find the rest of his crew and helped the Americans out of the country.

For that, the Chinese paid a terrible price. Historians believe as many as 250,000 people were killed in retaliation as Japanese troops loosed a reign of rape, pillage and murder.

Doolittle, who feared he might be court-martialed for launching early and losing all of his planes, instead returned to a hero’s welcome in the U.S. His swift promotion to Brigadier General was followed by a Congressional Medal of Honor. For Cole, there was a Distinguished Flying Cross and, eventually, a Congressional Gold Medal. His wartime service continued as a supply pilot flying the dangerous “hump” route over the Himalayas.

Nineteen of the 80 raiders were killed during the war. The rest met regularly over the years to commemorate an exploit that Admiral William “Bull” Halsey called, “one of the most courageous deeds in military history.” The Doolittle Raid foreshadowed the industrial might, the innovative daring, and the human fortitude that America would bring to the catastrophe of World War II, and sent a strong signal that the attack on Pearl Harbor would prove to be one of the colossal mistakes in the history of warfare.

Now only one remains. And he told his admiring listeners at the World War I Memorial and Museum in Kansas City that he “would like to settle the dust on one thing” before he joins his comrades on the mission of eternity. Much has been made of the fact that they were volunteers, Cole said. “And we did volunteer—the whole group, even our commander.” But gradually it had dawned on them that their bomber group, the 17th, “was the only group trained to fly the B-25,” and theirs was the only bomber that would fit on the deck of the Hornet.

“Once Jimmy Doolittle found that plane, we were going on that mission, whether we wanted to or not,” he concluded. His broad smile spoke volumes about America’s righteous might.

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