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Remembering Dick Cole, Who Risked His Life In WWII Doolittle Raid

Dick Cole at 103 with the B-25 "Grumpy" at the Oregon International Airshow in Sept. 2018.
Courtesy of David Mackintosh
Dick Cole at 103 with the B-25 "Grumpy" at the Oregon International Airshow in Sept. 2018.

World War II pilot Dick Cole, the last surviving member of the Doolittle Raid, died last week at age 103.

Cole was renowned aviation pioneer Jimmy Doolittle's co-pilot in April 1942 on what was regarded as a suicide mission – the first counterattack against the Japanese mainland after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. The raid caused Japan to contract its forces and start a battle with the United States over Midway Atoll, a small ring shaped island between North America and Asia. This battle, which the U.S. won, shifted the tide of the war into America's favor.

A memorial service for Cole will be held at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph in Texas on April, 18 — exactly 77 years after the raid occurred.

Lt. Col. Dick Cole after one of his interviews with author Laura Hillenbrand in September 2018.
/ Courtesy of David Mackintosh
Courtesy of David Mackintosh
Lt. Col. Dick Cole after one of his interviews with author Laura Hillenbrand in September 2018.

Laura Hillenbrand, the author of Seabiscuit and Unbroken, knew Cole and wanted to write a book about him.

"[the pilots] were very likely to die ... and everyone had the opportunity to back out. Not a single man did," including Cole, Hillenbrand told NPR's Scott Simon for Weekend Edition.

Interview Highlights

On why the mission was so dangerous

The United States was really knocked back by Pearl Harbor. And after that, the Japanese were just on a winning streak. And the United States could do nothing about it because they had no land base from which to launch bombers and go after Japan. And they had what I think is kind of an insane idea, which is they were going to take 16 B-25s, which are medium-sized bombers. They were going to hoist them onto the carrier Hornet, sail it out off the Japanese coast and launch them ... They had a plan that was going to take the planes over Japan, bomb Japan and then head on to friendly bases in China. And Japanese boats spotted their task force way early. They had to launch right at that moment. And they did. And the men knew they did not have enough fuel to make it.

On what happened to Lt. Col. Dick Cole during the mission

They flew over Japan, and they looked down. Cole remembered seeing people waving up and smiling at them as they flew over. They thought they were friendly planes ... They headed out over the China Sea, and they started to run out of fuel. And a tail wind caught them and carried them over the Chinese coast. And then their fuel ran out in the darkness in a wild thunderstorm over the mountains of China. And Cole had to jump out of the plane. He had never even practiced parachuting. He'd had no training at all. And he just dove out of the plane headfirst.

He walked for a day, and he found a building with a nationalist Chinese flag hanging over it. And a soldier was there — a Chinese soldier — and invited him in. And, the man took him to a dark room, and there was Jimmy Doolittle ... And from then, it was a race to get out of where they were because the Japanese were hunting them.

On why the mission was a success

The Japanese were so confident that they were spreading out over the globe and not concentrating their forces. And when this raid happened, that terrified them. And they contracted their forces. And they decided to take aim for Midway Atoll, which, if they could claim it, would give them a land base, making America more vulnerable and making themselves safer. And essentially, the raid lured them into that. We had the Battle of Midway. The United States won it triumphantly. And it turned the course of the war. So these guys - these 80 men on 16 planes - turned the course of history with that little raid.

On Cole's life after the war

He was a - kind of an institution at the Doolittle Raider reunions that were held every year. And they had a tradition there. The city of Tucson had made up 80 silver goblets inscribed with the names of the 80 men from the raid. And the names were written on one side right-side up and another side upside down. And each year, the men would privately gather and drink brandy in a toast to whoever had passed away the previous year. And then that man's goblet would be turned upside down. And there was one goblet that was still upright. And it actually still is now. But there's going to be a ceremony to turn over the very last one because they're all gone now.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.