Richard “Dick” Cole always wanted to fly.
“All the time that I was a kid…I built model airplanes. I wanted to fly,” Cole explained in an interview with the National Museum of the Pacific War on August 8, 2001.
Dick was born to Fred and Mabel Cole in Dayton, Ohio on September 7, 1915. Dick graduated high school in 1934 during the height of the Great Depression but luckily found employment. “I took a job working on a farm in Shelby County for $75 a month, plus room and board.” Farming didn’t suit Dick very well and he returned to Dayton to take a position at the National Cash Register Company in 1936. Unfortunately, he didn’t care for that job either. “The exultation of having a job didn’t last too long because I found out that all I was going to be doing was passing out rags and stuff like that to the old ‘codgers’ who had been there for years. So, at the risk of getting fired, I went to my boss after a month and asked him if I could get a job in one of the departments where are you were on piecework. You could make up the $40 a week.”
Dick’s piecework job involved him drilling holes in various machine parts. After more than a year a year of doing such, he saved enough money to attend Ohio University in Athens. His money ran out after a year and a half in school and in 1939 he returned home and got a job working at Lear Aviation at the Dayton Municipal Airport. While there he enlisted in the Civilian Pilot Training program. “I worked in the daytime and drove up to Springfield [Ohio] at Wittenberg College, take the ground school course. It was night school. I got my pilot’s license through that. Bill Lear was good enough, when he found out that I was taking pilot training, to let me takeoff time during the day to go and fly without losing any pay.”
In November 1940, Dick enlisted in the Army Air Corps at Fort Thomas, Kentucky in the hopes that it would see him flying the skies soon enough. That opportunity came when he was sent to Parks Air College in Saint Louis, Missouri. “We started out on Stearmans and then switched to the PT-19. I liked both of them. Anything that flew was fun.” Dick was then moved to San Antonio, first to Randolph Field then Kelly Field. After some training, he was transferred to the 17th Bomb Group in Pendleton, Oregon. “I was flying co-pilot. [We flew] B-18s and B-23s, and they just started to get B-25s, the A-model. We were all co-pilots. Sixteen of the people who went on the [Doolittle] raid were all in the same class. In September, 1941, we were moved to Jackson, Mississippi. We flew bombing missions into Louisiana, and then moved over to Augusta, Georgia.”
After months of practice, Dick’s squadron made the long journey back to Pendleton. “On December 6, 1941, we flew in the Marshfield. It is in Riverside California. Everybody went into Hollywood. We were in the Hollywood Plaza Hotel. We made a night of it, and the next morning we woke up, and we were in trouble.”
That trouble, of course, was the bombing of Pearl Harbor and Dick understood the gravity of the situation. “I knew this was a time where you either had to ‘fish or cut bait.’ There was something that we were training to do, so we were going to have to take part in it.”
Dick’s squadron was sent to Washington where they patrolled the waters in search of Japanese submarines. They were transferred on Valentine’s Day in 1942 to Columbia, South Carolina. “We lived in tents. One day on the bulletin board, there was a notice that they wanted volunteers for a dangerous mission. It didn’t say what or when or anything. So, I stuck my name on it. I stuck it on to either go as a pilot or copilot, either one. The ones that volunteered were sent to Elgin Field, Florida. That is where we connected up with Colonel [James “Jimmie”] Doolittle.”
A picture of the Raiders
Despite meeting with Colonel Doolittle, Dick and the other volunteers had no real understanding of what they had volunteered for. “One of the big things about the group was the secrecy of it. We weren’t even supposed to talk about it among each other…We did not know what we were really going to do until we were two days out at sea, and they announced it over the public address system.”
What they announced came to be known as the Doolittle Raid. The plan was to bomb Tokyo and other targets on the island of Honshu. If successful, the raid would prove that Japan was vulnerable to air strikes as well as serve as retaliation for the attack on Pearl Harbor. The problem with the plan was having American planes actually reach Japan. To do this, American bombers would have to launch from an aircraft carrier in the Western Pacific Ocean and fly an almost unheard-of distance. The first of problems involved the bombers taking off from an onboard runway that carried a distance of just 450 feet. This issue was solved with lots of trial and error and much practice.
“You use full throttle, full RPMs, and full flaps. When your engine and propellers reach the maximum of their power, you release the brakes, and you start down the runway. The procedure was to rotate back so that your tail skid was about a foot off the tarmac or the deck. In that position the thrust would pull you off, and you would break ground and be airborne somewhere between 65 and 70 miles an hour. If you lost an engine, then it was all over; but if you didn’t, you just kept going.”
Crew No. in front of B-25 on the deck of the Hornet. From left to right (Front) St. Col Jimmy Doolittle, Pilot, Lt. Richard E. Cole,
(Back) Lt. Henry A. Potter, Navigator, SSgt. Fred A. Braemer, Bombardier, SSgt. Paul J. Leonard, Flight Engineer/gunner.
“We took off [April 18] at 8:20 in the morning. We flew in ‘on the deck’ between 200 and 500 feet, and shortly into the island [Honshu], about 25 miles north of Tokyo, we flew maybe another five minutes inward and turned directly south and flew down the main street of Tokyo. We pulled up to 1,500 feet, dropped the bombs, went back down ‘on the deck’ and flew at a southerly heading until about 25 or 30 miles offshore, and then we turn to the south west heading toward China.”
The original plan was to fly to an undisclosed airstrip in China, refuel, then fly on to Kuming. “Instead of that happening, we were on instruments at 9,000 feet, and it was raining. There was no homer we just had to fly until we ran out of gas, and then we bailed out.” Given that it was at 8 o’clock at night, pitch black, and foggy, Dick was unable to see what he was falling into. He counted “1,000, 2000, 3000,” then pulled his chute. He came to rest in a tree about 12 feet off the ground. He slept in his harness hanging from the tree that night.
“I was in a pretty remote area. I also figured that, if I stayed in a remote area, my chances of getting captured would have been reduced. So, I started walking west, and I walked all day. In the evening I came out on the precipice. It was a compound of Chinese Nationalist. I went down there and knocked on the door. A young man answered it and took me inside, and on the table was a piece of paper with a drawing of a two-tailed airplane with five ‘chutes coming out of it. I pointed out that I was the fourth ‘chute. He took me to another building, and it turned out that the person who had drawn the picture was the ‘Old Man.’ He finally took me to the place where the Colonel [Doolittle] was. Later on, they brought in the rest of the crew. They fed us, and we had a place to sleep. After a few days there, why, they started to move us out of the occupied territory by horseback, by walking, and by bus, by seating chair, and by boat.”
Dick Cole recounting his Doolittle Raid experiences
Doolittle was sent back to the States and his Raiders onto Calcutta, India where they were given new uniforms and new assignments. Dick flew mission for the remainder of the war and after. He retired from the military in 1966 and died on April 9, 2019, at the age of 103. He was the last surviving member of the Doolittle Raid. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Today, on the Doolittle Tokyo Raider Anniversary, we remember Dick Cole and all the Doolittle Raiders
This piece researched at the National Museum of the Pacific War’s Nimitz Education and Resource Center
Contributor: Gayne C. Young
Gayne C. Young is a graduate of St. Edward’s University, the former Editor-in-Chief of North American Hunter and North American Fisherman - both part of CBS Sports -and a columnist for and feature contributor to Outdoor Life and Sporting Classics magazines. His work has appeared in magazines such as Petersen’s Hunting, Texas Sporting Journal, Sports Afield, Gray’s Sporting Journal, Under Wild Skies, Hunter’s Horn, Spearfishing, and many others.