Doolittle’s Raiders

by John Delach

Early in the morning of April 18, 1942, Captain Marc A. Mitscher ordered the USS Hornet, to turn into the wind and prepare to launch aircraft. Sixteen twin-engine Army Air Force B-25 bombers were lined up on the flight deck, engines roaring prepared to race into the sky and fly to Tokyo 650 miles distant. The first bomber had only 500 feet of deck available to achieve take-off speed. Splashing into the Pacific presented a real and frightening possibility.

The battle plan called for the B-25s to be launched no further than 500 miles from their target but Admiral William F. (Bull) Halsey in charge of the task force, was spooked by a Japanese picket ship that reported his fleet. Halsey’s priority was to protect his two aircraft carriers. He ordered an early launching so his fleet could retire before the enemy mounted a counter attack.

Sixteen airplanes, 80 men, five aboard each airplane. A pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier and an engineer / gunner. Lieutenant Colonel James (Jimmy) Doolittle commanded the mission and flew that first bomber. His co-pilot was Lieutenant Richard E. Cole who lived long enough to be the last surviving Raider. Lieutenant Colonel Cole (retired) died on April 9, 2019. He was 103.

Doolittle and Cole shared the flying but during the flight, Cole perplexed his pilot. Cole recalled that the crew remained quiet as they approached Japan but, “…The tune, Wabash Cannonball, kept running through my mind. I (started) singing and stomping my foot with such gusto that the boss looked at me in a very questioning manner like he thought I was going batty.”

Listen to the jingle, the rumble and the roar

As she glides along the wonderland o’er the hills and by the shore

Hear the mighty rush of the engine hear those lonesome hobos call

Traveling south to Dixie on the Wabash Cannonball

Every plane reached Tokyo, successfully delivered its bomb loads and escaped with minimal damage. Sadly, the added 150 miles made it impossible for any plane to make it to a Chinese controlled landing strip. The crews had a Hobson choice to crash land or parachute into a dark and rainy night. One aircraft made it to the Soviet Union where the crew was interned. Three aviators were killed and eight fell captive to the Japanese. Four of these Raiders survived to return home once the war ended.

Cole’s parachute snagged a pine tree. Twelve feet off the ground, he waited until morning. “Being a young kid…it was easy for me to climb down.” Chinese soldiers on patrol found Cole and reunited him with Doolittle at their nearby camp. 

The story of the raid is legendary. Conceived in January of 1942 by Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King as a morale booster to gladden the hearts of Americans during the darkest days of World War II. Franklin D. Roosevelt approved it with gusto.

As soon as news of the raid was released it became the stuff of legends that was magnified by the book and movie, “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo”, starring Spencer Tracy as Doolittle. FDR helped enhance the mystery. When asked to reveal the secret location where the bombers originated, he replied: “Shangri-La.”

Jimmy Doolittle received the Congressional Medal of Honor in recognition of his heroic exploit. An aviator’s aviator and a great leader, Doolittle held several important commands during the war including the Eighth Air Force. He retired in 1959 as a four-star general. He died at age 96 in 1993.

Dick Cole retired from the USAF in 1967 and moved to Comfort, Texas.

The Raiders sported an active alumnus first meeting in 1946 to celebrate their leader’s 50th birthday in Miami. Cole told the National World War II Museum: “It gave us a chance to renew the camaraderie of the group and it gave us a chance to honor the people that gave their lives on the mission and those who had left the group since.”

The reunions became an annual affair. In 1959, the city of Tucson presented the Raiders with 80 silver goblets, each etched twice with each raider’s name, one right side up, the other upside down. At each reunion, the Raiders raised a toast with a sip of 1896 cognac, the vintage-Doolittle’s birth year. They retired the goblets of those who passed since the previous reunion by turning them upside down.

Cole built a velvet-lined display case to move the collection to the site of each reunion. By 2013, only four survivors remained, Dick Cole, Edward J. Saylor, David J. Thatcher and Robert Hite who could not make the ceremony.

Colnel Cole made the final public toast: “To the gentlemen we lost on that mission and to those who passed away since, thank you very much and may you rest in peace.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined tumbling mirth

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air…

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue,

Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

(From High Flight by John Gillespie Magee Jr.) 

RIP Dick Cole, Jimmy Doolittle and the other 78 Raiders: collectively our National Heritage.