By Jennifer Griffin, Lucas Tomlinson
Published April 17, 2019
It was a turning point in the war, just four months after Pearl Harbor, and gave the nation hope.
Lt. Col. Richard Cole, the last surviving Doolittle Raider, died last week at the age of 103. He was Jimmy Doolittle's co-pilot in the lead bomber that launched the surprise counter-attack over Japan in April 1942.
“How we were selected to go on that raid I don't know,” said Cole in an interview with the American Veterans Center in 2014.
The raid was a virtual suicide mission: 16 bombers with 80 men on board taking off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, 650 miles east of Japan, to bomb Tokyo and break the will of the Japanese.
The B-25 Mitchell bombers flew without fighter escort. The lumbering bombers had to be modified to take off on the short, pitching flight deck. Typically the bombers would need 3,000 feet of runway to take off on land, but at sea, they had only 500 feet on the carrier.
While inflicting only minimal damage, the raid boosted morale back home in the United States and changed the course of the war.
Three Doolittle Raiders were killed. Eight were captured by the Japanese. Four survived years of solitary confinement. All but one of the bombers crash-landed in China. The Raiders thought they would be court-martialed, not honored.
Asked how he became Doolittle's co-pilot on the famous mission, Cole said it was fate.
“It was strictly by luck,” he said. “The 17th group got transferred to Columbia, South Carolina. They had put a note up on the board wanting volunteers for a dangerous nation. I had [to] put my name there.”
Two months after the raid, mission commander Brig. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle received the nation's highest valor award, the Medal of Honor, from President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Oval Office.
Cole received the Distinguished Flying Cross. The Doolittle Raiders agreed to meet every year until only two remained. In 2013, they uncorked a bottle of vintage cognac from 1896 -- the year of Doolittle’s birth -- for a final toast.
Thursday, a grateful nation will say goodbye to the last Doolittle Raider. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and the Air Force’s top officer, Gen. David Goldfein are to fly down to San Antonio, Texas, for the memorial.
Lt. Col. Richard Cole will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery if Congress intervenes, according to officials.
Three years ago, the Air Force said it would name its new B-21 bomber -- The Raider -- in honor of the legendary Doolittle Raiders.