On April 9, we said goodbye to a hero of the Greatest Generation. Retired Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” Cole, the last surviving member of the Doolittle Raiders, passed away at the age of 103.
In the aftermath of the devastating sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the purpose of the Doolittle Raid four months later was to show that American air power could reach across the Pacific to threaten the home islands of Japan. The daring target of mainland Japan was symbolic because the Japanese military leaders had assured the nation that the Home Islands were too distant to be vulnerable to attack. While the amount of damage caused by the raid was minimal, it was the first U.S. attack on mainland Japan and succeeded in boosting American morale, changing the course of the war.
Led by Lieutenant Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle 77 years ago almost to the day on April 18, 1942, the 80 Doolittle Raiders flew 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers, taking off from an aircraft carrier in the Pacific more than 600-miles away from their targets. Dick Cole was mission commander Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot and would say later, “I had my own confidence, but we all had Jimmy Doolittle.”
The 80 volunteers knew the raid would be dangerous. According to Cole, Doolittle “offered anybody that had volunteered the opportunity to change his mind, without any repercussions. There were no takers.”
One contributing factor to the danger was that B-25s required 2,000 feet of runway, but the Doolittle Raiders took off the from the USS Hornet aircraft carrier with only a few hundred feet of space. Fighter escorts would not be able to accompany the raiders to their targets, leaving them vulnerable to air attack. Another factor was the lack of fuel to reach China. Cole described the dire fuel shortage the raiders faced: “Our only course of action was to climb up to what we thought was a safe altitude and fly until we ran out of fuel and bailed out.” 15 of the 16 bombers crash-landed near the coast of China. Dick Cole parachuted from 9,000 feet, giving himself a black eye as he pulled the rip cord. He was picked up on the ground by Chinese allies.
Of the 80 raiders, three were killed in action during the raid. Eight were captured, of whom four died in captivity.
After the war, the surviving Doolitte Raiders began an annual tradition of coming to together, each raising one of 80 goblets bearing their names to toast one another. After a survivor passed away, his goblet would be turned upside down.
With the passing of Dick Cole, all of the silver Doolittle Raiders goblets have been raised for the last time. While they may be gone, the bravery of their actions and sacrifice, as well as the sacrifice of the dwindling Greatest Generation, will live forever in our national memory.
Congressman Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside serves the 4th Congressional District in Washington, D.C.