Last Doolittle Raider to toast to his comrades Tuesday

Doolittle Raiders take to the sky 60 years after historic battle

Surviving members of the Doolittle Raiders had an opportunity in 2009 to fly in vintage planes.
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Surviving members of the Doolittle Raiders had an opportunity in 2009 to fly in vintage planes.

On April 18, 1942 – 75 years ago Tuesday – 80 incredibly brave men in 16 bombers took off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet to bomb Tokyo and other Japanese cities in retaliation for the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

It was called the Doolittle Raid, after the group’s charismatic leader, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, a renowned avaiator even before the war.

Doolittle’s B-25 was the first to take off from the Hornet. Sitting beside him was a quiet, lanky young man from Dayton, Ohio, named Dick Cole.

On Tuesday, the 101-year-old will be at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton , Ohio. There, he will complete a decades-long tradition and turn over the goblet of his friend and fellow Raider David Thatcher, who died last year on June 22.

The tradition was that the Raiders would meet each year and drink a toast to those who had fallen. Each had their own goblet, and after each Raider died, his goblet would be turned upside down in its case. Cole, 101, will offer the toast this year by himself – he’s the last surviving Raider.

Jim Lux of Austin, an Air Force afficionado, met with Cole two weeks ago. He told The State Cole didn’t mention anything about being the last one of his friends and comrades still standing, “But I could see it in his face. It’s going to be very difficult for him.”

That Doolittle would pick Cole to be his right hand man in what would be the famous aviator’s most dangerous and important mission speaks volumes.

I had the great privilege of hanging out with him more than once, including in a vintage B-25 over Columbia.

I first talked to him on the phone in May 2001, when Columbia was gearing up for the Raiders’ 60th Reunion. It would be the second big reunion in Columbia; the 50th was also held here.

Columbia was chosen for these important dates (and another one in 2009) because it was here, at Columbia Army Air Field, now Columbia Metropolitan Airport, that they volunteered for their unknown but “very hazardous” mission.

‘Don’t mind the bird’

So I flew to San Antonio to do a profile on the man who was closest to Doolittle during the Raid. I arrived, visited the Alamo (had to do it), rented a car and drove to Cole’s modest rural home outside of Comfort, Texas.

Upon entering the front gate I was almost immediately confronted by an emu. Yes, a big bird.

“Don’t mind the bird,” Cole, 85 then, said as he strode out in the front yard to meet me. “He’s my watchbird.”

Seems that Cole’s son, if I m remembering it correctly, had entertained raising emus and ostriches, but didn’t move forward with it, and Cole was left with an emu and at least one ostrich. He didn’t seem overly pleased to have them.

One of the great images I have in my mind was a photograph our freelancer took of this great, brave, true American hero with a look of consternation on his face as a giant ostrich head hovered above his.

Cole is accommodating, soft spoken and has a very dry sense of humor. I, a military history buff to the core, was a little star struck at first, but he was so down to earth and humble that I felt immediately at ease. I’ll never forget the visit.

Shortly after the reunion, the Michael Bay movie “Pearl Harbor” was released starring Ben Affleck as a handsome pilot named Rafe McCawley and Alec Baldwin as Doolittle. Cole was portrayed by actor Paul Francis, but he is listed in the credits as only “Doolittle co-pilot.”

The movie had a fictionalized rendition of the Raid, and the producer flew some of the Raiders, including Cole, to Hawaii for a premiere aboard the aircraft carrier John C. Stennis.

So I called Cole and asked him how he liked the movie.

“The popcorn was good,” he deadpanned.

The reunion was a success. I remember offering to buy David M. Jones, a Raider who retired as a two-star general and was a soldier straight out of central casting, a drink at the bar in the Marriott. I asked him what he wanted.

“Gin,” he said.

“Gin and what?” I asked.

“Just gin, son,” he answered.

After Doolittle died in 1993, Jones became the group’s de facto leader, offering toasts at the group’s reunions.

Mind as sharp as ever

I met Cole again in 2009 at the 67th reunion. By then he was 92.

As part of the ceremony, the organizers flew in the vintage B-25 Panchito. They offered to take Cole up for a spin, and I got to tag along to take some video and do some reporting.

After takeoff, the plane was cruising over Lake Murray, and they turned the controls over to Cole. He flew it like a champ, soaring around the lake and enjoying the views.

The B-25 has a glass nose, and I thought it would be a good idea to go up there and shoot video.

There is a hamster tube of a passage that you have to crawl through to get from the waist of the plane to the nose. So I unbuckled, slid down into a little compartment below the cockpit, and began squeezing through the passage to the nose. I got about halfway when the plane began to bank back and forth pretty vigorously.

It was not a pleasant experience. But I made it to the nose, got my shots and got back to my seat as quickly as possible.

“Dick, you did that on purpose,” I said through the headset, heart still racing.

He just looked back at me and smiled.

Cole still lives alone at his house in Comfort, but doesn’t hear well enough to talk on the phone, Lux said, or he would be happy to chat.

“He’s quite frail, but as far as his mind is concerned he’s as sharp as ever,” he said.

Lux said Cole got rid of the emu and ostrich years ago.

During my 35 years in journalism I have had the opportunity to meet politicians, sports stars and important people of all types.

But the opportunity to meet the Raiders and other World War II heroes such as the late Col. Charles Murray of Columbia, a Medal of Honor recipient, and the late Col. Ted Bell of Columbia, the most decorated World War II veteran from The Citadel, outshines them all.

Heroes. The word is used too much today. But these guys like Dick Cole are the real deal.

What strikes me most is how humble and tough they are ... or were. “Just doing my job.” “I was too dumb to know better.” “Somebody had to fly the damn plane.” “They got me in the arm, but it wasn’t my drinking arm.”

There aren’t many of these men left anymore. And we won’t see their kind again.

So if Dick Cole could hear on the phone today, I would tell him, “Well done, sir, all the way around.”

Doolittle Raid commemorative concert and dance

A concert and dance will be held Tuesday at the Lourie Center to commemorate the Doolittle Raid. A talk on Columbia’s part in the Doolittle Raiders story will be at 6:30 p.m. before the 7 p.m. dance.

What: Doolittle Raid commemorative concert

Who: Capital City Big Band

When: 6:30-9 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Lourie Center, 1650 Park Circle, Columbia

Cost: $10

Info: www.schistoricaviation.org