Last of The Doolittle Raiders
By Steven Joseph
December 7th, 1941 was famously described by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as, “A day which would live in infamy.” On that day, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, inciting the President to declare war and deeply wounding the American psyche in the process. But on April 18th, 1942, America struck back with a bomb raid of its own, making heroes out of 80 American soldiers.
The “Doolittle Raiders,” so named because they were led by Lieutenant James Doolittle, were all volunteers, with no knowledge of their mission when they signed up. “Doolittle said, ‘I need men for a dangerous mission. If you ever want to back out, there won’t be any consequences but I can’t tell you what it is, and you won’t be able to tell your wives or your family,’” recalls Dick Cole, 101, and the last surviving Doolittle Raider. “For every one of us it was the first combat we had ever seen. Even Doolittle, who served in World War I, hadn’t seen combat yet.”
The Raiders trained at the Eglin Air Force base in northern Florida, where as fate would have it, Cole got to fly with his hero. “Doolittle was already very well-known to me, I had a scrapbook on his accomplishments. I called him a man of all seasons, very personable and inspiring. He was a great leader. We would have followed him anywhere.” One morning Cole’s pilot became sick and Doolittle filled in for the remainder of the mission. “He was the pilot, we were just the baggage,” Cole says with a chuckle.
From Eglin the Raiders went on to Alameda Air Force Base in California, and then eventually to the USS Hornet, a brand-new air craft carrier. “The bombers took up half of the flight deck, the Navy planes were below, and there were extra crew because of our mission. So the Hornet’s normal crew were less than enthused with us at first. But once the PA announced ‘This mission is bound for Tokyo’ everything changed,” according to Cole.
The mission began with less-than-auspicious beginnings, however, as a Japanese fishing vessel forced the Raiders to take off much earlier than anticipated. “Our plan was originally to take off 500 miles from shore, but we ended up having to depart between 650-700 miles away. I was on my way to breakfast at the time the PA made their announcement and ended up being the first one there.”
The Raiders flew in under the radar of the Japanese defenses who were unprepared for such a long-distance attack. Upon reaching their destination, the 16 planes dropped incendiary bombs, bringing the war to Japan for the first time. “When we reached Tokyo I thought, ‘Well, so far so good’ and luckily it continued that way.” The bombing had the dual impact of boosting American morale and debunking the Japanese position that they were untouchable.
Due to the increased distance they were forced to fly, all 16 planes had to ditch over Chinese or Russian soil. “Doolittle thought the mission was a failure because he lost all of the planes,” says Cole. The Raiders were all given compasses and told to head west away from Japan when they parachuted from the planes. On the day after the raid, Cole was picked up by a Chinese infantryman, both exclaiming, “Boy am I glad to see you.” For his efforts, Doolittle was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Of the 80 men who took off from the USS Hornet that fateful morning, 62 survived the war, and began a tradition of reuniting every year in cities across the country to toast to their successful mission, and to their fallen comrades. One of the cities in which they met donated a cabinet of 80 silver goblets, each engraved with the name of a Raider. In the center was a bottle of 1896 (the year of Doolittle’s birth) cognac. At every reunion, surviving members would turn upside down the goblets of any airmen that had died that year, with the plan being for the last two surviving raiders to open the bottle and share one last drink with their brethren in arms.
In 2006, down to only four remaining Raiders, an agreement was made to have one final reunion and share the cognac. Cole recounts the only reasonable thing to do was make the same toast Doolittle made at the first reunion, “I propose a toast to the people we lost on the raid, and those that have passed away since.” When questioned about the secret to his longevity, Cole replies, “Keep moving,” a fitting response for a man who once flew 650 miles for 30 seconds of glory.