The weather over Arlington National Cemetery was sunny and clear, similar to the day in 1942 when Richard Cole helped change the course of American history as one of James H. Doolittle’s “Raiders” during World War II.
As he stood before the grave of his former commander, the 98-year-old ex-pilot who helped stage a daring attack on Japan that lifted American spirits at a crucial time said the memory is bittersweet.
Cole flew in from his home in Texas to be the grand marshal in Monday’s Memorial Day Parade in Washington and to accept a Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of the Doolittle Raiders — a group of 80 U.S. airmen whose mission into Japan on April 18, 1942, inspired Americans reeling over the Pearl Harbor attack and other Japanese victories.
As part of the dwindling ranks of surviving World War II veterans, and one of only four surviving Raiders, he said the honor was joyful but also a bit lonely.
“You’re here to pay your respects to him, but at the same time, you wish they were all still here,” Cole said after saluting Doolittle’s tombstone Friday and those of some other Raiders buried nearby.
Of the 16 million Americans who fought in World War II, about 1.5 million are still alive, according to the Arlington-based American Veterans Center.
The 80 U.S. airmen who volunteered for the Doolittle Raid are giants among that generation of veterans, even though the popular memory of their exploits is fading as the drama of more recent wars eclipses their significance.
“It’s not a well-known story anymore,” said James C. Roberts, president of the American Veterans Center, which is helping to coordinate a documentary film about the Raiders. “That’s something we’re trying to address.”
Cole’s recollections remain in tight formation, their wings glistening in the sun.
In retaliation for the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Doolittle Raiders flew in 16 B-25s toward Japan without enough fuel to reach friendly airfields in China — a dangerous mission that prompted Japan to launch the Battle of Midway, a turning point that led to American victory on the Pacific front.
Cole recalled how angry and fearful Americans were after Pearl Harbor and how, a few months later, he saw a notice inside the Columbia, S.C., tent camp where he was based that sought volunteers for “a dangerous mission.”
He and others volunteered, not knowing what was planned until they were at sea aboard the USS Hornet aircraft carrier, Cole said.
The pilot he had been teamed up with for the mission became ill and had to drop out.
In stepped Doolittle, taking a seat with Cole in the cockpit in what would be the lead plane in the mission known then as “Special Project No. 1.”
“It was strictly by luck,” Cole said about being teamed up with the commander his squadron already idolized.
On the day of the attack, the weather was clear enough for a Japanese fishing boat to spot the USS Hornet. The Americans destroyed the boat and, out of worry over having been found out, launched their mission about 200 miles farther from Japan’s coast than planned.
Aboard his plane, Cole said, the crew was silent, with Doolittle relaying technical orders about the flight and a navigator warning everyone that they might not reach China after their bombs were dropped.
Nervous, Cole began tapping out the rhythm to “The Wabash Cannonball,” a folk song about a mythical train speeding along in safety to its destination.
Doolittle shot him a look without saying a word, he said.
“I think maybe he thought I’d gone off the deep end,” Cole said.
After the bombs were dropped on Tokyo and surrounding cities, the planes ran into stormy weather over China. Doolittle ordered everyone to bail out at an altitude of 9,000 feet. By then, it was night.
“For me, that was the scariest time,” Cole said, recalling for the documentary filmmakers how he jumped without knowing whether he would wind up on land or in the South China Sea.
“I pulled the [parachute] ripcord so hard, and looking down, that I gave myself a black eye,” he said.
Landing in a pine tree, Cole spent the night dangling 12 feet above ground until some Chinese villagers sympathetic to the Americans rescued him and helped reunite him with Doolittle and some of the others.
Six of the Raiders died while trying to reach safety, including three who were captured by the Japanese and executed after being accused of shooting at Japanese civilians.
The graves of two of those men — William G. Farrow and Dean E. Hallmark — are in Arlington National Cemetery.
Visiting them, Cole saluted silently and stared into the distance as the team of documentary filmmakers recorded his every move. Others who survived have also since gone, falling victim to disease and other infirmities of age that struck where bullets missed long before.
Last November, the Raiders ended a tradition of reunions when the four remaining survivors toasted the memory of their fallen comrades with a drink of cognac bottled in 1896, the year Doolittle was born.
But, as Cole sat inside the Mayflower Hotel in Washington awaiting his trip to the White House, he said the mission of keeping the raid’s memory alive isn’t over.
“If people are serious and want to listen and ask good questions, I don’t mind talking about it,” he said.
Sharing war stories is therapeutic, Cole said, and something that veterans normally avoid.
With that, he left the hotel to make his White House appointment and walked into Washington’s crowded sidewalks, where nobody recognized him.