At 101 years old, Dayton native Richard E. Cole is the last Doolittle Raider standing.
On Monday and Tuesday, he’s set for a homecoming of sorts to mark the 75th anniversary of the audacious raid commemorated in ceremonies and a World War II era B-25 bomber flyover at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
On April 18, 1942, 80 Army Air Forces airmen climbed into 16 B-25B Mitchell bombers in groups of five to fly off deck of the USS Hornet and travel across hundreds of miles of ocean to bomb Japan.
Cole was co-pilot to the raid leader, then Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, a legendary record-setting aviator.
“There was a bit of scariness but we had trained for 45 days,” Cole said in part in a telephone interview last week from his Texas home. “We were supposed to light up Tokyo and do as much damage as possible.”
The raid that struck five cities caused little damage but raised American morale and forced the Japanese to bring troops home to protect the homeland.
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The U.S. launched the carrier-based strike in retaliation for the Japanese Navy’s devastating surprise attack against the U.S. fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii that killed more than 2,400.
Cole and World War II-era B-25s flying in across the nation will mark the anniversary raid in public and private ceremonies at the Air Force museum Monday and Tuesday.
“Seventy five years later, this event still captures the public imagination because it was daring, unprecedented, and important,” said Air Force museum Doug Lantry. “… The Doolittle Raid was a pivotal event for American morale and Japanese military thinking.”
Only one will stand
In a decades-old tradition Tuesday, Cole will turn over one of two silver goblets still standing upright among 80 to mark the death of fellow Raider David J. Thatcher, a retired postal carrier who died of a stroke last June in his Montana home at age 94.
When a Raiders dies, a survivor has turned a goblet upside down with the name of fellow airman engraved on it.
“You truly feel sorry that you’re turning over the cup of a comrade but somehow something sneaks into your thoughts about it not being you,” Cole said.
Jeff Thatcher, son of David Thatcher, will travel to Dayton to witness the private ceremony.
“I’m sure it’s going to be a real emotional moment to me because of the significance of the actual act of turning over the goblet,” Thatcher, 61, of Little Rock, Ark., said in an interview with this newspaper.
He witnessed the last silver goblet ceremony in 2015.
“I was impressed by the solemnity of it and just the whole tradition really kind of washed over me,” said Thatcher, president of the Children of the Doolittle Raiders, Inc. “Of course, emotionally it didn’t hit me like I’m sure it will this year because my father was there and he participated.”
Cole himself expected his fellow Raider would outlive him because he was six year younger, said Cindy Chal, 71, and Cole’s daughter. “It was kind of a shock because Dave was doing very well this time last year,” she said. She and the other children carry the legacy of the World War II airmen in public appearances.
The goblets stand on display in a folding wooden case at the Doolittle Raiders exhibit in the museum. Doolittle died in 1993.
A secret mission to danger
As airmen were asked to volunteer for the secret mission 75 years ago, they had no idea who would lead it or where they were headed. “They didn’t know where they were going, but they knew it was dangerous,” Lantry said.
When the airmen learned Doolittle would lead the raid, their confidence grew “because he was a well-known aviator, and a very intelligent man,” Cole said.
As the strike unfolded, 16 Army Air Forces bombers lumbered off the deck of the aircraft carrier hours earlier than expected and more than 600 miles of the coast of Japan when an enemy patrol boat spotted the U.S. carrier task force at sea.
“We were supposed to be flying at night and as it turned out we were flying in the daytime,” Cole said.
The pilots flew low, at an altitude of about 200 feet, to avoid detection as they barreled over the shoreline of Japan.
“… When we first saw the Japanese islands, I was impressed by the beauty of the place,” he said.
“People were on the beach waving at us. People playing baseball waved at us…. It was kind of like flying in Miami,” he said.
The wartime mission would turn serious quickly. The five-member crewed dropped four incendiary bombs on a factory in Tokyo, one of four cities the bombers hit.
After the raid, Cole’s crew headed toward China. With fuel running low after 13 hours in the air and flying more than 2,500 miles, Doolittle ordered they bail out into the night over the country.
“I pulled the ripcord so hard I gave myself a black eye,” Cole said.
The crew was reunited on the ground with the help of local Chinese residents on the ground.
One crewman suffered a sprained ankle, but they were otherwise uninjured.
Cole remembers the moment he found Doolittle.
“He greeted me and I was pretty elated to see him,” Cole said.
Fifteen of the 16 bombers crashed landed or were abandoned in the air as crews bailed out after the raid. One bomber landed in Russia where the U.S. crew was interred until crew members escaped in 1943.
The Japanese captured eight airmen in China and held them as POWs. Three were executed.
Japanese soldiers killed about 250,000 people in China in retaliation for helping the American airmen, according to the museum.
In recent years, the museum has hosted Raider reunions and ceremonies, including the Raiders “Final Toast” in 2013 and a ceremony marking the airmen receiving the Congressional Gold Medal in 2015.
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