In Memoriam: Lt. Col Richard Cole
Show Date: April 14th, 2019
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Lt. Col Richard “Dick” Cole, USAF, ret.
World War II Pilot
“Last of the Doolittle Raiders”
The fifth of six children, Richard Eugene “Dick” Cole was born in Dayton, OH on Sept. 7, 1915. His father trained as a railroad engineer, but after losing an eye during an accident, he became a road builder; during the Depression, he took a job repairing sidewalks for the city. Dick grew up watching the planes take off and land at an experimental military station nearby, He decided he would become a military pilot (“or a forest ranger, if his first goal did not pan out”).
He studied at Ohio University for two years and in 1940 he enlisted in what was then the Army Air Corps, which offered an aviation training program for civilians with some college experience. After the December 1, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to flying anti-submarine patrols, “during which he mainly spotted whales”.
Lt. Cole signed up for what became memorialized as “The Doolittle Raid” by responding to a post on an Army Air Corp bulletin board asking for volunteers for a risky secret air-combat mission which he thought would be over North Africa. The mission turned out quite differently, as one he later learned was orchestrated as a way to boost American morale subsequent to the brutal Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.” While the plan would result in only a “pinprick” of damage, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had been “anxious to find a way to let the American public know that in the end we would prevail, we would win.”
He was notified that he had been selected for the secret mission and he began training to fly B-25’s on a shortened aircraft-carrier-length runway, taking off at 500 feet rather than the usual 3,000. The crews’ training was quite short and soon Dick and his associates were sent to Alameda, CA to board the Naval USS Hornet Aircraft Carrier.
Two days after he and his fellow airmen left Alameda, Calif.on The Hornet, they learned they were sailing toward Japan, where their planes were assigned to bomb dry docks, armories, refineries and factories in cities such as Tokyo.
The Hornet encountered a Japanese picket ship several hundred miles off the coast of Japan, so the decision was made to launch the mission early — about 10 hours and 200 miles ahead of their scheduled flight plan.Lt. Cole was walking to the mess hall about 6 a.m. when an announcement ordered him to his plane, where he readied the bomber with Doolittle and the three other members of their crew: navigator Henry A. Potter, bombardier Fred A. Braemer, flight engineer and gunner Paul J. Leonard.
Their planes had been weighed down with extra gas, stripped of unnecessary equipment. Thus, facing a strong head wind, with water coming over the bow of the ship, they took off with relative ease, marking the first time a fully loaded B-25 had taken off from a Navy carrier, the first of 16 twin-engine bombers roared to life early that April 18th, 1942. Their plane screamed down the carrier flight deck and took off into the skies.
For the next four hours, Jimmy and Dick, as they were called out of uniform, took turns tightly gripping their control yokes — manhandling the aircraft to keep it just 200 feet above the waves. Their destination was Tokyo, where the Doolittle Raiders, struck the first blow against Japan, lifting America’s spirits in the months after Pearl Harbor.
As they reached Japan, Dick said he saw beach-goers waving. “It was kind of like flying in Miami”, he recalled. Once they reached the mainland, they rose to about 1,500 feet and to drop incendiary bombs over Tokyo. They “got jostled around a bit by antiaircraft fire” as they flew over Japan and continued on toward China.
All sixteen planes emerged relatively unscathed, but with fuel dwindling and darkness falling, they hit a storm and appeared to be destined well short of the Chinese mainland. They were however, saved by a tail wind that one pilot later described as the “hand of heaven.” Once they reached China, they were instructed by Doolittle to bail out over the Japanese-occupied territory.
Some 13 hours after departing the Hornet, Lt. Cole and his fellow airmen leaped into the darkness and rain. He had no formal parachute training, his daughter said, and pulled the rip cord on his parachute so hard he gave himself a black eye.
Three Raiders from other planes died bailing out and eight others were captured by Japanese forces in China. Of those, three were executed and a fourth died in captivity. One crew landed in the Soviet Union where they were imprisoned for more than a year before escaping into Iran.
Lt. Cole’s parachute jump landed him in a pine tree about 10 feet off the ground. He decided to spend the night in that tree by using his parachute as a hammock. At daybreak, he was discovered by a group of Chinese guerrillas who led him and many of the other airmen to safety.
As a result of the lost planes, the casualties and the limited scope of the bombings, Doolittle initially believed the mission was a failure and feared a court-martial. Instead, it proved a public relations coup and an unexpected strategic triumph.
Japanese aviation units were pulled back for homeland defense, and historians credit the raid with spurring the US to attack Midway, Atoll in June 1942. That battle proved to be “a stunning defeat” for the Japanese military, that cost them four aircraft carriers and significantly shifted the balance of power in the Pacific back in favor of America.”
He would spend his later years lecturing at schools, air shows and Rotary Clubs, fielding questions about the World War II raid and its beloved commander, Jimmy Doolittle. He was the last of the eighty Army Air Corpsmen (later known as Airmen) known as the Raiders, when he died April 9, 2019 at a military hospital in San Antonio at the age of 103.
In addition to his daughter, of Comfort, Tex., survivors include two sons, Richard W. Cole of Wirtz, Va., and Samuel Cole of Waco, Tex.; five grandsons; and five great-grandchildren. His wife of 59 years, the former Lucia Harrell, died in 2003, and he was preceded in death by two children, Andrew and Christina.
In news interviews, including ones given after his 100th birthday, Lt. Col. Cole resisted efforts to celebrate his role in the Doolittle Raid; directing attention toward his commander and the servicemen who served along side him, many of whom did not survive the war. “The way this whole thing ended up”, he once told the Dallas Morning News, “we were just a bunch of guys doing our jobs.”
Each year, the Raiders met to honor those who had passed on. Their last and final toast was held at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force Nov. 09, 2013 in Dayton, Ohio. The ceremony was attended by three of the four living Doolittle Tokyo Raiders: retired Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” E. Cole, the copilot of Aircraft No. 1; Lt. Col. Edward J. Saylor, the engineer-gunner of Aircraft No. 7; and Staff Sgt. David J. Thatcher, the engineer-gunner of Aircraft No. 7. The fourth living Doolittle Raider, retired Lt. Col. Robert L. Hite, the copilot of Aircraft No. 16, could not attend the ceremony due to health issues.
Bjorn Dybdahl, of Bjorns, Warren Remmey, of Spider Man Pest Control, and John Thurman, of Heart of Texas Realty, are honored to have had the opportunity to meet: