The April 18, 1942, surprise raid on Japan, conducted by American air forces under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle, provided “the first thin ray of light” in the “long, dark valley of war” that followed the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, wrote Senior Director of Research and History Keith Huxen, PhD, for V-Mail, the Museum’s quarterly newsletter for Members. “The raid was daringly executed with stripped-down B-25 bombers launched from a carrier too far away from their targets for the crews to safely return. The bombing damage done in Tokyo and other sites was actually insignificant, but the jolt of finally striking back at the enemy, coupled with the courage of Doolittle’s aviators embarking upon a one-way mission to China (three captured Raiders were eventually executed), spurred a massive psychological lift for Americans weary of bad news.”
Beside Doolittle as copilot aboard the lead B-25, launched from the deck of the USS Hornet (CV-8), was Richard “Dick” Cole. The last surviving Doolittle Raider, Cole died April 9 at age 103.
More than a living link to a turning point in World War II, Cole was a gracious and humble bearer of history and a familiar face to audiences at The National WWII Museum, most recently at the October 2018 WWII Air, Sea & Land Festival. Cole made several appearances at our air show over the years, participated in a panel of Doolittle Raiders at the 2011 International Conference on World War II, appeared at the Museum with author James Scott (Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid that Avenged Pearl Harbor), and attended the December 2015 grand opening of the Richard C. Adkerson & Freeport-McMoRan Foundation Road to Tokyo: Pacific Theater Galleries. He also participated in a Gary Sinise Foundation Soaring Valor visit of WWII veterans to the Museum in March 2017. His oral history is eminent among the approximately 10,000 personal accounts of the war years in our collection.
“Dick Cole and his fellow Doolittle Raiders provided our country with a surge of hope during one of the darkest periods of World War II,” said President & CEO Stephen J. Watson. “A true American hero, Dick recognized the importance of sharing his WWII experience with audiences, and added a special element to so many of the Museum’s programs. We were so fortunate to have him as our featured WWII veteran during our 2018 WWII Air, Sea & Land Festival, bringing history to life for our visitors. Having Dick’s oral history in our collection will be invaluable for generations to come.”
An Ohio native, Cole had completed pilot training with the US Army Air Forces in July 1941, and as a newly commissioned second lieutenant was eager to serve after the Pearl Harbor attacks. In early 1942, Cole volunteered for a dangerous mission he knew nothing about.
“We were two days at sea,” Cole said in his Museum oral history. “The PA system came on and said, ‘This force is bound for Tokyo.’ Right away there was a lot of jubilation. And then afterwards it got real quiet. I guess everybody was wondering, ‘What am I doing here?’”
After reaching mainland Asia in the B-25, Cole remained in the China-Burma-India theater for more than a year after the Doolittle Raid, only to return to service there from October 1943 to June 1944. He was relieved from active duty in January 1947 after the war’s end. Cole was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters, the Air Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster, Bronze Star Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal, and Chinese Army, Navy, Air Corps Medal, Class A, 1st grade for his service during the war. Cole retired from the US Air Force with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
In June 2016, Cole received the Silver Service Medallion at the Museum’s American Spirit Awards Gala. Awarded annually, the Medallion recognizes those who have served our country with distinction and, upon retirement, continue to lead by example. Each recipient exemplifies core values that were critical to the Allied war effort—teamwork, optimism, loyalty, and bravery.
“Dick Cole is a man we know well at The National WWII Museum, for his role in the famous Doolittle Raid on Japan,” said Gordon H. “Nick” Mueller, PhD, then-Museum President & CEO, introducing Cole’s award. “His courage and spirit helped to define the daring and ingenuity of the American war effort, even in the most trying days of the war.”