Retired Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” Cole, the last of the 80 Doolittle Tokyo Raiders who carried out the daring U.S. attack on Japan during World War II, died Tuesday at a military hospital in Texas. He was 103.
Robert Whetstone, a spokesman for Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, confirmed Cole’s death. Cole’s daughter, Cindy Chal, said he was having some heart issues but had walked into the emergency room.
Cole, who lived in Comfort, Texas, had stayed active even in recent years, attending air shows and participating in commemorative events including April 18, 2017, ceremonies for the raid’s 75th anniversary at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton, Ohio.
Chal said her father “enjoyed every minute” of his long, distinguished life.
Cole was mission commander Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot in the attack less than five months after the December 1941 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Doolittle died in 1993. The Gen. James “Jimmy” H. Doolittle Archives are at the University of Texas at Dallas. Cole’s papers are also part of the school’s History of Aviation Collection.
Cole was a Dayton-area native who recounted riding his bicycle as a child to watch planes at McCook Field, a military testing air base there. He dreamed of being a pilot and after attending Ohio University, enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1940. Stationed in South Carolina, he signed up as a volunteer for a secret mission he knew would be dangerous, but not much else about. They trained at Eglin Air Force to fly B-25 bombers on short takeoffs, in preparation for flying off an aircraft carrier.
The Raiders launched their assault April 18, 1942, in B-25 bombers from the USS Hornet. Suspecting they had been detected by Japanese patrols, they left farther away from Japan than planned.
The crews of the 16 planes were “very quiet” as they neared Japan, Cole recalled, saying his role next to Doolittle was to “be seen, not heard. … You didn’t speak until spoken to.” But the country song “Wabash Cannonball” started running through his head and he unconsciously began tapping his toe, which caught Doolittle’s attention. He shot Cole a look, he recalled with a laugh.
Doolittle soon ordered bomb bay doors opened, and the attack was on against what turned out to be limited anti-aircraft fire in the surprise attack.
They then headed to China, running out of fuel. Cole said Doolittle gave the command to prepare to bail out as they neared the coast, adding: “I wish you all good luck.”
Cole said it was scary to parachute into a dark “unknown” in rough weather. His parachute caught in a tree, leaving him dangling but safe. Chinese partisans helped lead him and other Raiders to safety.
Three Raiders died trying to reach China, and eight were captured by Japanese soldiers. Three were executed, and a fourth died in captivity.
Cole recalled that Doolittle was distraught at first, upset that he had lost all of his planes and some of his men. Doolittle would later receive the Medal of Honor.
The raid inflicted scattered damage while providing a psychological lift back home. The stunned Japanese military diverted resources after a string of Pacific successes.
“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 a 2015 ceremony. “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 service assignments in several states.
In an AP interview in April, 2017, Cole described as “a somber affair” the toast he planned to carry out to end a long Raider tradition. Using goblets engraved with their names, they each year lifted them and sipped cognac in tribute to those who had gone before. Retired Staff Sgt. David Thatcher died in 2016 at age 94 in Missoula, Montana.
Doolittle organized reunions that became annual affairs, and Cole was a regular. He also took part in other special events, including leading a special public “final toast” ceremony at the museum in 2013, when four Raiders were still alive. He said then: “May they rest in peace.”
He said in April 2017 he hadn’t expected to be the last survivor, since he was older than most on the mission
Cole attributed his longevity to being an optimist and living a life of “moderation.” He said he believed he spoke for all Raiders when he said they didn’t want any more recognition than all the others who put their lives on the line in the war effort.
“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.”
Chal said a memorial service is planned for April 18 at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio. She said her father will be buried later at Arlington National Cemetery.