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OPINION | JEFF THATCHER: Nothing stronger

Volunteerism at its finest by JEFF THATCHER SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | September 16, 2021 at 2:57 a.m.

Famed aviator Jimmy Doolittle once quipped, "There's nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer."

On Sept. 7, Doolittle's co-pilot on the Doolittle Raid, retired Lt. Col. Richard A. "Dick" Cole, who personified volunteerism both during his military career and afterwards, was laid to rest along with his beloved wife Mart at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio.

Sept. 7 would have been Cole's 106th birthday. He died April 9, 2019, at the age of 103, with the distinction of being the last surviving member of the legendary Doolittle Raid of World War II in which 80 volunteer crew members, including my late father, manned 16 aircraft bombed five Japanese cities, including Tokyo, in retaliation for Japan's surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Cole's funeral and interment were delayed two years and had been planned for Arlington National Cemetery, but senior Air Force officials could not attend the first service planned for August 2019, and the coronavirus pandemic upended the second service planned for April 18, 2020, the 78th anniversary of the raid, according to Cole's daughter Cindy Cole Chal.

To honor Cole and his service, Gen. Charles Q. Brown, the Air Force chief of staff, promoted Cole to the rank of colonel in a ceremony held at Fort Sam Houston's golf club prior to the funeral.

"We often get caught up in the daily static of life," Brown said. "Let us never forget that we truly stand on the shoulders of giants. I'm forever grateful for the early aviators that paved the way for our nation and the Air Force.

"Although the mission was initially thought to be a tactical failure, it ended up being such a huge strategic success. Their raid proved to Japan and the world that airpower could be delivered on Japanese soil. This man embodied service before self."

Brown likened the courage of the volunteers comprising the Doolittle Raid to that of the airmen and pilots who stepped up recently to fly Americans and refugees out of Afghanistan. Those servicemen also volunteered for the mission, Brown said.

Brown told the crowd he had met Cole's daughter earlier and "she mentioned that when her father enlisted in the Army Air Corps the staff sergeant told him, 'Never volunteer for anything.'"

Instead, Cole "volunteered for just about everything he did, and I would say we're glad he did, because of the rich heritage he brought to our Air Force as part of the Doolittle Raiders," Brown said.

After the Doolittle Raid, Cole volunteered for additional hazardous missions, including flying supplies from India to China over the Himalayas, and towing gliders into Burma at night, carrying commandos on secret sorties.

"Those Word War II combat missions start the story, but they do not capture all the character and the great legacy of this man, who was a faithful husband, a loving father and grandfather, a successful businessman and an icon for the Air Force as he traveled the nation to honor all those who fought to keep our nation safe and free," said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charlie Baldwin, a former chief of chaplains for the service, who delivered Cole's eulogy.

Cole retired in 1966 with more than 5,000 hours in 30 different aircraft and 250-plus combat missions. He settled with his wife and five children in Texas, first in Alamo, later in San Antonio, then Canyon Lake, and finally a place near Comfort where he fielded fan mail, signed autographs, and planned visits to air shows and other events.

The funeral service included a caisson ride for Cole's cremated remains and a flyover of five B-25B Mitchell bombers, the same planes that comprised the Doolittle Raid, followed by a pair of C-47 Dakota cargo planes, concluding with a four-craft F-15E missing-man formation.

During a dinner for family and guests after the funeral service, I met Amy Mainous, a mother of two daughters, Taylor and Lynley. The three had traveled to San Antonio for the events. She showed me a scrapbook she had put together related to the Doolittle Raid and their encounters with various Raiders at Doolittle Raider reunions the three attended at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

When Amy's eldest daughter, Taylor, was in grade school, she wrote an essay on the Doolittle Raid for a class assignment. After learning about the Raid, attending the reunions, and meeting Cole and some of the other Raiders, Taylor and her younger sister Lynley were both inspired to volunteer to serve in the Air Force. Taylor now works in intelligence, and Lynley recently graduated from the Air Force Academy.

There's nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer.

Jeff Thatcher is a professional communicator and longtime resident of Little Rock.

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