The last airmen who took part in the daring Doolittle Raid during World War II has died.
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Dick Cole, who served as Army Lt. Col. James Doolittle's co-pilot during the raid, passed away on Tuesday at 103 years old. His death was first reported by Air Force Magazine's John Tirpak.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein paid tribute to Cole on Tuesday at the 35th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Goldfein told audience members he had just visited Cole on Monday night in Texas.
"I told him our Air Force was thinking about him and his family because we're so proud to carry the torch that he and his fellow Raiders handed us," Goldfein said. "He couldn't speak, but he grasped my hand firmly and he nodded his approval."
"Sadly, just before taking the stage, I took a call from his son Rich, who shared that there's another hole in our formation, and our last surviving Doolittle Raider has slipped the surly bonds of earth and he is now reunited with his fellow Raiders," Goldfein continued. "What a reunion they must be having."
Ret. Lt. Col. Dick Cole, Doolittle Raider co-pilot crew 1, signals the start of engine 2 on a B-25 named "Special Delivery" on April 20, 2013
(U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Carlin Leslie)
Cole was one of the few men of whom it can be honestly said changed history. The attack by 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers on April 18, 1942 set into motion a series of events that culminated in the Battle of Midway less than two months later, which decided the Pacific war in the United States' favor.
The raid was as dangerous as it was bold. The plan called for the bombers to take off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet — a feat that had never been done before.
With no chance of returning to the carrier, the planes were supposed to land in China, but the crews' chances of making it to safety dropped precipitously when the Hornet was spotted by a Japanese ship and Doolittle launched the bombers 200 miles further from Japan than planned.
Both Cole and Doolittle were in the lead bomber, so they had the least amount of the deck to get airborne. Yet all 16 bombers took off successfully and struck their targets in Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, and Kobe.
Seventy-five years later, Goldfein asked Cole two years ago what it felt like trying to make it to the Chinese coastline while low on fuel without any navigational references.
"He offered: 'Well, general, it sure would have been nice to have had GPS back then,'" Goldfein recounted on Tuesday. "You know, we're going to miss Col. Cole and we offer our eternal thanks and our condolences to his family. The legacy of the Doolittle Raiders will live forever in the hearts and minds of airmen long after we've all departed."