Editor's note: This article has been changed to correct one wrong reference to the bombers Mr. Cole flew. They were B25s.
Retired Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” Cole, the last of 80 Doolittle Raiders who made the daring U.S. attack on Tokyo during World War II, died Tuesday after walking into the emergency room at a military hospital in San Antonio. He was 103.
He “enjoyed every minute” of his long, distinguished life, said his daughter, Cindy Chal.
Indeed, during a visit to Colorado Springs on Aug. 8, he was asked about outliving his comrades. “It’s not my fault,” he said with a grin.
But Cole said he believed he spoke for all Raiders that they didn’t want more recognition than all those who put their lives on the line in the war.
“We don’t want to be remembered any more than the rest of the people who took part in beating the Japanese,” Cole said. “They started it, and we finished it.”
Months after Japan struck Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Cole and his comrades were called to the secret mission. They trained launching B-25s from an aircraft carrier. Though the bombers normally used more than a mile of runway, they would take off in only 500 feet.
When Japanese fishing boats spotted them, they had to hurriedly take off from the carrier’s rolling deck April 14, 1942.
Still, Cole told The Gazette, “It was no different than if we were taking off from a runway.”
Cole was co-pilot for then-Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, who became such an Air Force hero that he received the Medal of Honor and has a building named for him at the Air Force Academy. Doolittle died in 1993.
The crews of the 16 planes were “very quiet” as they neared Japan, Cole recalled.
“We were expecting anti-aircraft fire,” he said, but the B-25s flew unopposed over downtown Tokyo.
The bombers’ high-tech sights had been removed lest the enemy capture them, so they relied on a sheet metal device for aim.
It didn’t matter, Cole said, because the neighborhood was massive. While the bombing was easy, finding a safe place to land was tough.
They had planned to fly to an airfield in China, but they didn’t have enough fuel after taking off hundreds of miles farther from Tokyo than planned because of the fishing boats. The navigator said “we would be 180 miles short of China,” Cole recalled.
A tailwind blew in from the Pacific, pushing the planes as their fuel tanks ran dry. Still, they would never make the airfield. So as the engines sputtered, the crews parachuted into enemy territory.
Cole said it was scary to drop into a dark “unknown” in rough weather. His parachute caught in a tree, leaving him dangling but safe. Three Raiders died trying to reach China, and eight were captured by Japanese soldiers. Three were executed, and a fourth died in captivity.
Cole said Doolittle was distraught about losing his planes and some of his men.
Their crew got help from Chinese troops, American missionaries and others, and they made it back to safety.
“Seven decades later, we are still awed by the sheer audacity of the Doolittle raid and the incredible men whose grit and bravery made it possible,” Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said when the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded to the Raiders in 2015. “Though time has thinned their ranks, it will never dim the daring of their deeds.”
Cole continued to fly missions in the China- Burma-India theater until 1944 and had peacetime assignments in several states.
The native of the Dayton, Ohio, area recalled riding his bicycle as a child to watch planes at McCook Field, a military testing air base. He dreamed of being a pilot and after attending Ohio University, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1940. He was stationed in South Carolina but volunteered for the secret mission.
In retirement, Cole lived in Comfort, Texas, but stayed active, attending air shows and commemorative events. He attributed his longevity to being an optimist and living a life of “moderation.”
In Colorado Springs, Cole donated to the National Museum of World War II Aviation a copy of the Congressional Gold Medal given to the Raiders by President Barack Obama. Cole said he hoped his story and the medal remind young people in the Pikes Peak region that liberty has a cost.
“If you want to enjoy freedom, you have to step forward in case of emergency,” he said.
A memorial service is planned for April 18 at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Chal said, and her father will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.