Retired Lt. Col. Richard Cole doesn’t consider himself a hero, but almost a dozen local law enforcement officials who met with Cole on Thursday disagree.
The 101-year-old World War II veteran is the last surviving member of the Doolittle Raiders, who struck Tokyo months after the Pearl Harbor attack.
“There was a whole group of us and a whole lot of people involved in the war,” Cole said. “When your freedom is at stake, you just got to do your job. That’s it.”
Several members of the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office surprised Cole on Thursday at the Rocky’s Roadhouse, where Cole planned to meet with his son Sam Cole, a Rocky’s employee, before Richard Cole made his way to Dallas for an airshow this weekend. Sheriff Parnell McNamara said meeting Cole was an honor.
“I can only imagine what he and his men went through flying over Japan, knowing that they most likely wouldn’t make it back,” McNamara said. “I’ve known of him for several years and of course, I’ve known about the Doolittle Raiders my entire life and to finally meet him, to meet the last surviving raider, is such an honor.”
On April 2, 1942, Cole, 26 at the time, boarded the carrier USS Hornet after volunteering for an unknown mission, about four months after the Japanese led a deadly attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
Under the leadership of 45-year-old Lt. Col. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, Cole learned about the attack, later to become known as the Doolittle Raid, that was meant to be the first U.S. attack on Tokyo and other Japanese industrial cities to avenge Pearl Harbor.
Cole said the plan was to boost the morale of Americans and to show the country would not accept defeat. On April 18, 1942, 80 men boarded B-25 Mitchell medium bombers and flew to Japan for what has historically been described as a “suicide mission.”
“I was always in a state of awe (flying with Doolittle),” Cole said. “He was my idol as a kid. He was an all-around good person. I couldn’t think of a better man or pilot.”
Sitting inches away from Doolittle, Cole flew with crews and dropped incendiary bombs on military and industrial targets in Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe, Nagoya and Osaka. The attack lasted a few minutes before crews pushed on toward China, where Doolittle and Cole’s crew bailed out of the plane as it ran out of gas.
“When the parachute opened, I landed in a tree, but I was just happy it opened,” Cole said when asked what he remembered most about the raid.
All bombers lost
All 16 of Doolittle’s bombers were lost in the mission. Cole, Doolittle and crews of nine other B-25s bailed out over China and made their way to safety. One man was killed bailing out, and two others drowned trying to swim in a lake to escape potential capture.
Two planes landed in China but in areas occupied by Japan. Eight crewmen were captured, resulting in three men being executed and five being sentenced to life in prison.
One man in prison starved to death, according to an account of the raid on doolittleraider.com. Three planes crashed on China’s coast, but their crews were safe.
The last plane had to land in the Soviet Union, where authorities took the bomber and interned the crew.
After the raid, Cole said Doolittle was certain the mission failed because none of the planes landed. President Franklin D. Roosevelt awarded Doolittle the Medal of Honor, and Cole and other raiders were honored with the Distinguished Flying Cross.
“He is a hero in the truest sense of the word,” McNamara said after listening to Cole’s memories. “There was a lot of blood spilled on our shores and foreign shores so that we would be free, and I am very honored and humbled to meet him.”
Cole returned the appreciation and thanked members of the sheriff’s office for their service. When asked why he volunteered, Cole said his reasoning was simple.
“Freedom is worth fighting for,” Cole said.