US Air Force Retired Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” Cole was the epitome of badass, a statement made with the utmost of reverence for man that participated in one of the most epic missions in WWII. As Cole was also a local resident of Comfort and passed away this past month, we tip our hat to him this month.
“They call him a national hero, but he was bigger than that.” said Tom Casey, President of the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders Association, adding that Cole was a was a kind, gentle family man who lived with honesty and sincerity. “He was like a dad to me.”
Born in Dayton, Ohio, on Sept. 7, 1915, Cole was commissioned into the military on Nov. 22, 1940. He finished flight training in 1941 and later volunteered for a secret mission following Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Cole trained for short-field takeoffs in B–25s at Eglin Field in Florida—much shorter than bombers had ever done: 287 feet was the shortest takeoff distance logged, according to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. It wasn’t until he and 79 other crewmembers, along with 10,000 U.S. Navy personnel, boarded the USS Hornet that they learned of their dangerous mission—launching bombers off an aircraft carrier to attack Japan’s mainland. In a 2012 interview, Cole said “nobody jumped ship” after they pondered the assignment’s implications.
Cole and Doolittle were the first to launch—eight hours earlier than planned and 650 miles out to sea. Cole was scheduled to fly with another pilot who became ill, so Doolittle stepped in. Known as Crew 1, they dropped the first bomb on Japan. After running low on fuel, Doolittle’s crew had to bail out over the mountains in China, where locals helped escort them to safety. Cole had zero parachute experience, and recalled that “They told me to count to three and then pull the cord. I think I counted to one, and then pulled it so hard I gave myself a black eye.”
Scholars dubbed the mission a miracle in more ways than one. Launching bombers off an aircraft carrier farther out to sea than planned and successfully bombing Japan’s mainland was a miracle of its own. The other occurred in the morale boost it gave U.S. citizens who hadn’t received good news from the war in the Pacific in months, and in the blow it dealt to Japan’s military strategy. The Japanese altered their plans in the Pacific to attack Midway, where U.S. crews were waiting and successfully defeated the enemy, marking a turning point in the war in the Pacific.
After the raid on Tokyo, Cole continued to serve in influential roles during World War II before returning home. He helped to develop routes across “The Hump,” flying more than 300 missions between India and China over the Himalayan Mountains during a 13-month period, according to Casey. He then returned home but volunteered to go back to China to serve with the 1st Air Commandos, which Cole considered one of his greatest accomplishments, said Larry Kelley, a close friend of Cole’s who often joined him at events with the B–25 Panchito.
Cole was so highly regarded that when he was recovering from an illness a year and a half ago, he received personal telephone calls at home from President Donald Trump and former president George W. Bush, according to Casey and Kelley.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever met a man more dedicated to airmen, to his family, to his country,” Kelley said. “It was never about him but what he could do for other people.” Cole had “tremendous respect for the World War II veterans.”
According to the Air Force Times, Cole retired with a Distinguished Flying Cross “with two oak leaf clusters, the Bronze Star, and the Air Force Commendation Medal.” The Doolittle Tokyo Raiders received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2015. Cole was honored during a memorial service at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas on April 18, which was the seventy-seventh anniversary of the Doolittle Tokyo Raid. On April 20, the USS Hornet Air, Sea, and Space Museum paid tribute to Cole and to commemorate the raid’s anniversary.
(some information courtesy of Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association).