On Tuesday morning, the last remaining Doolittle Raider, 103-year-old Lt. Col. Richard E. "Dick" Cole of Comfort, Texas, took his final breath at a military hospital in San Antonio and joined his 79 departed comrades in eternity.
In the process, the last living link connecting the Raiders to their daring mission that provided the U.S. with its first meaningful victory in World War II and gave desperate Americans an infusion of hope was forever broken.
Cole, the co-pilot of plane No. 1 piloted by mission commander and aviation daredevil Lt. Col. James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle, was 26 and had grown up idolizing Doolittle.
Born on Sept. 7, 1915, in Dayton, Ohio, Cole was bitten by the aviation bug during his teenage years. He would often ride his bicycle to see Doolittle and other pilots make test flights from nearby McCook Field.
After two years of college at Ohio University, Cole enlisted as an aviation cadet on Nov. 22, 1940, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in July 1941. He later became part of the 17th Bombardment Group at Pendleton, Ore., and was on a training mission on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
In early 1942, Cole volunteered for "Special Mission No. 1," which would later be known as the Doolittle Raid. He and the other volunteer airmen, including my late father, trained for nearly a month at Eglin Air Field near Pensacola, Fla.
After completing their training, the airmen took off from Eglin in crews of five aboard the B-25s to the Naval Air Station in Alameda, Calif. There the 16 medium bombers were loaded onto the carrier USS Hornet, part of a 16-ship task force that would stream toward Japan before being discovered the morning of April 18, 1942, by Japanese picket boats.
Following that encounter, the 16 planes took off from the deck of the Hornet in rough pitching waves--a day early and hundreds of miles further than Doolittle believed they could fly with their limited fuel to bomb their targets in Japan and then escape to friendly airfields in mainland China. Doolittle's plane, loaded with four 500-pound bombs, led the procession.
Upon reaching their targets, the planes dropped their loads of bombs, and then all 16 aircraft flew toward their planned havens in China. One plane, low on fuel, was forced to divert to Vladivostock, Russia, where it landed and the crew was interned for 13 months before escaping.
The other 15 flew on to China. Running low on fuel, the crews were forced to either bail out or crash-land. Three Raiders died after bailing out, and eight were captured by Japanese soldiers. Three of those were later executed and a fourth starved to death. The remaining four, including the late Robert Hite, a longtime Camden resident, were kept prisoners by the Japanese until the war ended.
With their gas gauge nearing empty, the occupants of plane No. 1 parachuted out as they neared the coast of China. After drifting down in a raging thunderstorm, Cole's parachute caught in a tree, where he was left dangling but unscathed, aside from a self-inflicted black eye from pulling the cord of his parachute.
The next day, crew members reconnected and walked up to the wreckage of their plane where Doolittle sat dejected on the wing, believing he would be court-martialed for losing all 16 of the mission's aircraft. The crew and many of the other Raiders were subsequently led or taken inland to safety by Chinese partisans.
Instead of being court-martialed after returning to the U.S., Doolittle was presented the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and promoted two ranks to brigadier general.
Although the Doolittle Raid caused minimal physical damage, it provided a significant lift to sagging morale in the U.S. and caused psychological distress to the Japanese populace who had been told by their leaders that Japan would never be attacked. It also led the Japanese to attack American forces at the Battle of Midway in June 1942, a disastrous defeat for Japan and a turning point in the war.
After the Raid, Cole continued to fly missions in the China-Burma-India Theater until 1944, followed by peacetime service assignments in several states.
In April 2017, during the 75th anniversary commemoration of the Doolittle Raid at the Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Cole ended a long Raider tradition that featured silver goblets of all 80 Raiders engraved with their names right side up and upside down when he gave a final toast to his comrades and then turned over the silver goblet of my late father, S. Sgt. David J. Thatcher, engineer-gunner of Crew No. 7 and the second-to-last living Raider, who passed away in June 2016 at the age of 94.
At my father's funeral earlier, Cole said that statistically he should not have been the last man, given the age difference between him and my dad. But he outlived all the other Raiders and would maintain that distinction for three more years until his heart finally gave out.
On April 18, the 77th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid, a memorial service will be held for Cole at Randolph Air Force Base near San Antonio. He will be buried later at Arlington National Cemetery.
That same evening, the Children of the Doolittle Raiders, a nonprofit group dedicated to keeping the legacy of the Raiders alive, will toast the Raiders in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., not far from Eglin Field. Cole was scheduled to attend the CDR gathering and lead the toast before falling ill last week.
Cole attributed his long life to his optimistic nature and living a life of "moderation." He, my father and the other Raiders were adamant about deflecting praise when being recognized as heroes.
"We were just doing our jobs. The real heroes were the guys who did not make it back," my father often said.
Rest in peace, Dick Cole--you've earned it.
Jeff Thatcher, the son of late Doolittle Raider David J. Thatcher, is a professional communicator and longtime resident of Little Rock.
Editorial on 04/13/2019
Print Headline: JEFF THATCHER: The last Raider