Weighed down with extra gas, stripped of unnecessary equipment, the first of 16 twin-engine bombers roared to life. Early on April 18, 1942, it screamed down the flight deck of the USS Hornet aircraft carrier and took off into the skies.
Piloting the modified B-25 Mitchell plane that day was James H. Doolittle, a record-setting aviator and 45-year-old lieutenant colonel in the Army Air Forces. Seated to his right was co-pilot Richard E. Cole, a lieutenant nearly half his age.
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, as their cohort became known, struck the first blow against Japan, lifting America’s spirits in the months after Pearl Harbor.
Lt. Cole would later spend years lecturing at schools, air shows and Rotary Club events, fielding questions about the World War II raid and its beloved commander, Doolittle. He was 103, and the last of the 80 airmen known as the Raiders, when he died April 9 at a military hospital in San Antonio. He had suffered from heart issues, said his daughter, Cindy Cole Chal.
Raised in Dayton, Ohio, where he grew up watching the planes land at an experimental military station, Lt. Cole had volunteered for the raid when the mission was still a secret, signing up on an Army bulletin board. He knew only that the flight would be risky, and he assumed he was headed for North Africa.
Lt. Cole began training to fly B-25s on a shortened aircraft-carrier-length runway, taking off at 500 feet rather than the usual 3,000. Two days after he and his fellow airmen left Alameda, Calif., aboard 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 Doolittle Raid was originally designed as a way to boost American morale,” said James M. Scott, author of “Target Tokyo,” a history of the raid and a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in history. While the plan would result in only a “pinprick” of damage, he added, 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.”
Orders had come down in early 1942, when Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces, selected Doolittle to lead a mission to bomb Japan. The original plan had Doolittle’s pilots landing in China and flying some 2,400 miles in total — a vast distance that required the use of larger Army planes rather than nimble Navy aircraft.
Bombsights and turrets were removed to make way for added gas tanks. But after the Hornet encountered a Japanese picket ship several hundred miles off the coast of Japan, the decision was made to launch the mission early — about 10 hours and 200 miles early, diminishing the chances that the planes would have enough fuel to reach China.
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, and flight engineer and gunner Paul J. Leonard.
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, Scott said.
The crew flew in silence, through sun and occasional rain. Lt. Cole once said that the folk song “Wabash Cannonball” began running through his head; after he started tapping his foot, Doolittle shot him a look to keep quiet.
As they reached Japan, Lt. Cole said he saw beachgoers waving. “It was kind of like flying in Miami,” he told the Dayton Daily News. Rising to about 1,500 feet, he and his crew dropped incendiary bombs and “got jostled around a bit by antiaircraft” fire before continuing on toward China.
All 16 planes emerged relatively unscathed. But with fuel dwindling and darkness falling, they hit a storm and appeared well short of reaching the mainland. They were saved by a tail wind that one pilot later described as the “hand of heaven,” and were instructed by Doolittle to prepare to bail out as they approached Japanese-occupied China.
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.
Lt. Cole landed in a pine tree about 10 feet off the ground, where he decided to spend the night, using his parachute as a hammock. At daybreak, he met up with a group of Chinese guerrillas who led him and many of the other airmen to safety.
Three Raiders 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.
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 Japanese attack on Midway Atoll in June 1942. The battle proved “a stunning defeat” for the Japanese military, Scott said. “It cost them four aircraft carriers and really shifted the balance of power in the Pacific back in favor of America.”
The raid was memorialized in a 1944 Hollywood film, “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” and Doolittle received the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor. A town in Missouri changed its name to Doolittle, who died in 1993.
In 2015, retired Lt. Col. Cole and the other Raiders were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the nation’s highest civilian awards. A year later, Col. Cole marked the death of the second-to-last surviving Raider, retired Staff Sgt. David Thatcher, turning over a silver goblet bearing Thatcher’s name as part of a decades-old Raider tradition.
He then took a sip from his own goblet, the last of 80 to stand upright.
The fifth of six children, Richard Eugene Cole was born in Dayton 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.
Lt. Col. Cole studied at Ohio University for two years and in 1940 enlisted in what was then the Army Air Corps, which offered an aviation training program for civilians with some college experience. He was based in Pendleton, Ore., and after the attack on Pearl Harbor began flying anti-submarine patrols, on which he mainly spotted whales.
In the aftermath of the Tokyo raid, Col. Cole remained in the China-Burma-India theater, piloting C-47 transport planes over “the Hump” — the Himalayas — and participating in the invasion of Burma with the 1st Air Commando Group.
By the time he retired from the Air Force in 1966, he had logged more than 5,000 hours of flight time in 30 different aircraft. He received honors including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star Medal and the Air Medal.
Col. Cole had long ago decided he would become a forest ranger if he was unable to become a pilot, and after leaving the military he purchased a citrus grove in South Texas. For 15 years he tended to oranges and grapefruits, partnering with another World War II veteran to sell them to mom-and-pop stores across the state.
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, Col. Cole often resisted efforts to celebrate his role in the Doolittle Raid, directing attention toward his commander and toward the servicemen who 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.”