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Doolittle's co-pilot retells story of daring raid at JBSA-Randolph

By Robert Goetz | Nov. 24, 2014

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas — A retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who served as co-pilot alongside acclaimed aviator James "Jimmy" Doolittle during the daring April 18, 1942, raid on Tokyo relived those tense hours Nov. 14 in Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph's Fleenor Auditorium.

Addressing questions during the 435th Fighter Training Squadron Leadership Series, retired Lt. Col. Richard "Dick" Cole recalled Doolittle, the pilot who led the mission to Tokyo that served as a counterpunch to Japan's surprise Sunday morning attack on Pearl Harbor four months earlier. He also recounted his role in the operation, which started with takeoff from the Navy aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet and ended when he reunited with Doolittle in the Chinese province of Zhejiang after bailing out of their B-25 bomber.

Cole said he was "in awe" of Doolittle, who was a lieutenant colonel at the time of the Tokyo raid and rose to the rank of lieutenant general in the Air Force Reserve before being promoted to full general by Congress. He said Doolittle was well educated, personable and an inspiring leader.

"He was about the finest human being you could ever want to meet," Cole said.

The 99-year-old Cole, who addressed 12th Flying Training Wing leaders, instructor pilots and students, and other members of the JBSA-Randolph community, impressed the audience with his attention to detail and his embodiment of Air Force core values.

"There were several things that impressed me - his humility about what he accomplished, his mental sharpness and ability to recall specific details of the event, and the fact that he considered his actions during the mission as simply doing his job," Maj. Jason Bianchi, 435th FTS upgrade instructor pilot, said.

Bianchi, who introduced Cole at the leadership series session, said the retired colonel showed that one of the first steps to great leadership was being a respectful subordinate.

"He was a lieutenant when he flew with Doolittle, so he was a great follower and that's where great leadership starts," he said.

Bianchi said one of Cole's comments - "That was a time when a second lieutenant didn't speak unless he was spoken to" - was "a testament to the utmost respect he showed to the senior officer and commander during the raid."

The session began with the presentation of two short films that focused on the Tokyo raid - a vintage newsreel-style account and a video titled "The Last of Doolittle's Raiders," a recent retelling of the mission by the five surviving Doolittle Tokyo Raiders at the time. Cole is now one of four surviving members.

The raid, which was immortalized in the book "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" by mission pilot Ted Lawson and the 1944 movie of the same name, comprised 16 aircraft and 80 aircrew members. The Army Air Corps fliers succeeded in their bombing missions, striking targets such as aircraft factories, industrial facilities and oil storage tanks while eluding Japanese fighter airplanes and antiaircraft fire.

Following the mission, many of the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders bailed out over China after crossing the East China Sea. Chinese nationals led 65 of them to safety. The Japanese captured eight men and later executed three of them; one man died of beriberi and malnutrition. Four members of the raid landed in Russia and were held in captivity before escaping to Iran. Three others died upon bailout, two by drowning.

Physical damage to Japan was minimal, but one pilot in "The Last of Doolittle's Raiders" noted that the raid "shook the Japanese tremendously."

One of the challenges of the raid happened at the beginning: The pilots had to take off in less than 250 feet of runway on the carrier and become airborne with only about 75 knots of air speed. In addition, weather conditions were bad and the mission began earlier and farther from the Japanese mainland than planned, which made conserving fuel crucial.

"That did cause some concern," Cole said. "There was nothing you could do about it but be very vigilant with use of the fuel."

Cole also related some anecdotes about the raid, including his interaction with Doolittle during the journey to Tokyo.

"Colonel Doolittle was not too talkative on this trip," he said.

Cole said he bailed out of the B-25 successfully, but probably too enthusiastically.

"I pulled the ripcord so hard I gave myself a black eye," he said.

After he drifted down in his parachute, he became entangled in a pine tree, where he spent the night before walking west to safety the next day.

Cole's day at JBSA-Randolph began when he met with Airmen and civilians in front of the "Yellow Rose," a replica of the B-25 he co-piloted with Doolittle.

Bianchi said he was "humbled by the presence of a living legend."

"Sitting next to Lt. Col. Cole and hearing him tell the stories of his mission was surreal," he said.