The Passing of a Hero

Lt Col. Richard E. Cole
1915 – 2019

Lt Col Richard E Cole (USAAC, USAAF)
Co-Pilot to Lt Col James H Doolittle, attack group leader
Doolittle Tokyo Raid on Japan – April 18, 1942
U.S. response to Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor

The last surviving member of the WWII Doolittle Tokyo Raiders has passed away at 103.  2nd Lt Richard Cole was one of 80 airmen volunteering for the highly classified and dangerous operation, April 18, 1942, in retaliation for the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Lt Col James H. Doolittle, mission leader, would give the airmen every option to withdraw. All remained steadfast in accepting the inherent danger.

Richard Eugene Cole was born on September 7, 1915, in Dayton, Ohio. Enlisting in the Aviation Cadet Program of the U.S. Army Air Corps on November 22, 1940, he was commissioned a 2nd Lt and awarded his pilot wings at Randolph Field, Texas on July 12, 1941.  His first assignment was as a B-25 Mitchell pilot with the 34th Bomb Squadron, 17th Bomb Group at Pendleton, Oregon from July 1941 until selection for the Doolittle mission in February 1942.  Lt. Cole would serve as co-pilot to Lt Col Jimmy Doolittle in the lead crew of 16 modified B-25 medium bombers.

Recruited from the Army Air Force, 17th Bombardment Group, the airmen were among the first to receive B-25 medium bombers, integral for the mission, and some of the finest pilots from 35 states.  Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, aviation legend and attack group leader, would oversee the operation and a maneuver never previously attempted – the unprecedented launching of B-25 bombers from a carrier deck, the USS Hornet, off the coast of Japan.   Following a mere  three weeks of simulated practice, the mission moved forward.   Highly cloaked in secrecy, the destination  remained unknown to the airmen until briefed at sea.

Orders in hand, Navy Capt. Marc A. Mitscher, USS Hornet skipper, chats with Lt. Col. James Doolittle (left), attack group leader of the Army Air Forces. The group of fliers, in coordination between the two services, carried the battle of the Pacific to the heart of the Japanese empire with a daring raid on military targets in major Japanese cities. The USS Hornet carried the 16 North American B-25 bombers to within take-off distances of the Japanese Islands.
(U.S. Navy photo)

Passing beneath the Golden Gate on the carrier USS Hornet, as the waves of  thousands cheered their departure, the hearts and hopes of a nation sailed for those sacrificed at Pearl Harbor.  10,000 Navy personnel and a task force of ships would deliver 16 B-25 bombers and 80 crewmen within striking distance of Japan.   In a high-risk launching of bombers in the western Pacific, they were all prime targets for Japanese  forces.

B-25 bombers on the flight deck of the USS Hornet
In route to the mission’s launching point for the Tokyo Raid
One of the escorting cruisers, the USS Nashville, is seen in the distance
(U.S. Navy photo)

Lt. Col. Doolittle’s B-25, the first of 16 bombers taking off from USS Hornet – 18 April 1942
(U.S. Navy photo)

Departure of an Army B-25 from the deck of the USS HORNET in the first U.S. air raid on Japan
Doolittle Tokyo Raid, April 18,1942
National Archives and Records Administration

Ultimately detected by the Japanese, hours prior to takeoff and 200 miles further out to sea than dictated, immediate departure in rough seas was required of the airmen.  What was always a dangerous mission was now possibly suicidal, as it was doubtful they had sufficient fuel to reach China following their raid.  Led by Lt Col James H. Doolittle, 16 B-25 bombers were swiftly launched from the carrier deck of the USS Hornet, weighed down with extra gas and stripped of unnecessary equipment, flying 200 feet above the waves toward the Japanese coast. Their targets were industrial and military installations in Japan with  escape to safe-landing destinations in China. With fuel consumption a major concern, as well as threat of anti-aircraft fire and enemy interception, it was a risky endeavor for safe passage of these men.

Doolittle Tokyo Raiders, Crew No. 1: 34th Bombardment Squadron, Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, pilot; Lt. Richard E. Cole (front right), copilot; Lt. Henry A. Potter, navigator; SSgt. Fred A. Braemer, bombardier; SSgt. Paul J. Leonard, flight engineer/gunner. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Lt. Cole, at the age of 98, is one of four surviving Tokyo Raiders.

The raid would claim a sacrifice in return.  Although most of the 80 valiant men would survive, one would  lose his life  in parachuting over China and two by ditching off the China coast.  Three of eight airmen, captured by the Japanese, would die by execution.  A fourth perished in a Japanese prison as the others endured harsh and extreme confinement.  Essentially all  16  bombers  inevitably were  lost.  Of the 15 reaching China, 11 were destroyed  during bail-outs and 1 crash-landing, while 3 were ditched at sea. The remaining, seriously low on fuel, was confiscated on landing in Russia and the crew incarcerated.

Following their raid over Tokyo, without incident, the Doolittle crew’s navigator calculated their fuel would land them 180 miles short of the Chinese coast and their safe landing.  Their savior was a powerful developing storm with winds from east to west which would propel them over China.  They endured the subsequent flying at night in stormy weather until forced to parachute from the plane when their fuel was depleted.  Lt. Cole’s ultimate destination was a tree where he spent the night, hanging twelve feet from the ground, until connecting with his safely landed crew members the following morning.  Spared from detection and capture by the Japanese, they were rescued by Chinese nationalist forces which ultimately connected them with their remaining Raider crews.

In the aftermath of the raid, the Japanese Army were conducting a massive sweep through the eastern coastal provinces of China.  In effort to prevent this part of China from being used again for an attack on Japan. they were searching for surviving American airmen and inflicting retribution on the Chinese who aided them.

Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle, USAAF, (center) with members of his flight crew and Chinese officials in China after the 18 April 1942 attack on Japan.
(U.S. Army Air Forces Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center)

Despite the minimal effect of the bombing, the mission proved a definitive success in its reciprocal lesson of vulnerability which took a toll on Imperial Japan and its military strategy. The undertaking by these Raiders, 131 days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, greatly boosted American and Allied morale and would generate strategic benefits for the U.S. in the Battle of Midway with subsequent disaster for the Japanese in the number of ships and pilots lost.


In long overdue recognition, Doolittle Tokyo Raiders of WWII were honored with  a Congressional Gold Medal in 2014.   Bestowed for their tremendous valor and sacrifice at a pivotal point in our military history, it is one of our nation’s highest awards.  Lt. Richard Cole (below) was the only one of 4 surviving Doolittle Raiders able to witness the legislative signing in an Oval Office ceremony on May 23, 2014.


In full circle of Lt Col Richard Cole’s Air Force career, his memorial was held at Randolph Air Base-San Antonio, the site of earning his wings on July 12, 1941, prior to his February, 1942 acceptance in the raid.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, Commander, Air Education and Training Command, addresses the family of retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” E. Cole during a memorial service at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas April 18, 2019. Cole was the last surviving Doolittle Raider who took part in the storied World War II raid on Tokyo and was a founding Airman of the USAF Special Operations community.

Memorial service for retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” E. Cole. Last surviving member of the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders. Founding Airman of the USAF Special Operations Community. Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Air Base April 18, 2019 (Photo by Tristin English)


Final Doolittle Raider’s Tradition of Honor
and Legacy of Valor Celebrated at Memorial

Dan Hawkins | Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs | April 19, 2019

The tradition of honor and legacy of valor that defined the life of retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” E. Cole were celebrated during a memorial service at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph April 18.

On the day marking the 77th anniversary of the storied World War II Doolittle Tokyo raid and in a hangar surrounded by vintage aircraft linked to the Doolittle Raider’s career, Cole’s family and friends, Air Force senior leaders, and Airmen of all ranks gathered to recognize the accomplishments of the humble warrior from Ohio who answered his nation’s call in America’s darkest days.

Rich Cole, Lt. Col. Cole’s son and a retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. like his father, spoke passionately about his father and his willingness to be a wingman and leader, defending his country with his life.  “All the (Doolittle Raiders) considered they were doing their job and didn’t expect the adoration they received upon returning home,” Rich Cole said. “One of the greatest lessons my dad imparted on us was that being willing to do something impossible and die for your country was an honorable thing.”

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson talked to those gathered about the strategic importance of the Doolittle Raiders and their risky mission to fly, fight, and win in retaliation against Japan for their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor just months earlier.

“(The Raiders) planned the unthinkable,” Wilson said. “To strike Tokyo from an aircraft carrier…with a land-based bomber.  If the 16-ship package had been discovered by Japanese subs, it could have ended what was left of the U.S. fleet in the Pacific.”

Wilson recounted how Cole once described heroes as those “who took risks that brought about important consequences,” but never counted himself among them.

“When America was at its lowest point, it needed a hero,” Wilson said. “(America) found 80 of them who put the country on their back and flew straight into the heart of the enemy.  For this, we will never forget.”

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told the audience several stories centered on Cole and how unassuming he was about his career, which included becoming one of the first air commandos in the U.S. special operations community, viewing his own place in history simply as someone doing their job as part of the big picture.

“(Cole) and the Doolittle Raiders made the impossible possible since 1942 as pioneers of global strike,” Goldfein said. “On that fateful day, Lt Cole and his fellow wingmen cemented the very notion of joint airpower with the clear statement that America’s Air Force can hold any target at risk anywhere, anytime.”

Acknowledging the Cole family’s loss, the chief of staff spoke to Cole’s significant contributions to our nation’s defense and lifetime place in the Air Force family as “one of the rare giants of the Greatest Generation.”

“(Cole’s) legacy will endure because as long as there is a United States Air Force, Airmen will toast him and his fellow Doolittle Raiders,” Goldfein said.  “We are better prepared today to defend our great nation because of him…and because of you.”

American Career Officer

U.S. Army (USAAC, USAAF) 1940-1947
U.S. Air Force 1947-1966
World War II 1941-1945
Cold War 1945-1966
Korean War Theater 1952-1953

Bronze Star
Distinguished Flying Cross (3)
Air Medal (2)

His 1st (of 3) Distinguished Flying Cross Citations reads:

For extraordinary achievement while participating in a highly destructive raid on the Japanese mainland on April 18, 1942.  Captain Cole volunteered for this mission, knowing full well that the chances of survival were extremely remote and executed his part in it with great skill and daring.   This achievement reflects high credit on Captain Cole and the military services.

Image by Air Force Magazine


Lt Col Richard Cole will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery

The Old Guard transports a flag-draped casket in full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery
Army Photo


In Profound Gratitude for your Service

About Karen Evans

Advocate For Honoring Military Service
This entry was posted in American History, American Veterans and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Passing of a Hero

  1. GP Cox says:

    An excellent tribute for one of the brave, Karen. They truly were remarkable back then.

  2. Jeff Groves says:

    Truly the Greatest Generation.

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