Hundreds gathered for a memorial service to celebrate the life of retired Air Force Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” Cole at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph on Thursday. Cole was the last surviving member of the Doolittle Raiders, a daring group of World War II airmen who bombed Tokyo only months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He passed away in San Antonio on April 9 at age 103.
Cole was born Sept. 7, 1915, in Dayton, Ohio. In 1938, he graduated from Steele High School in Dayton and attended two years of college at Ohio University before enlisting as an aviation cadet in 1940. Soon after, he received orders to report to Parks Air College in East St. Louis, Ill., for training before arriving in San Antonio, where he trained at Randolph Field and Kelly Field. He completed pilot training and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in July 1941.
The following year, Cole co-piloted the lead bomber in the Doolittle Raid, the United States' first counterattack on the Japanese mainland after Pearl Harbor. Sixteen stripped down B-25 bombers, each with a crew of five men, were launched from a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Pacific. The plan was to bomb military targets in Japan and then continue westward to land in China.
The raid exposed Japan as vulnerable to attack and helped raise the morale of U.S. troops and civilians in the early part of American participation in the war.
On the 77th anniversary of the raid, airmen lined Harmon Drive to salute Cole’s family as they made their way onto Randolph Air Force Base. Crowds filled Hangar 41, where the memorial was held and simulcast around the world.
At the start of the ceremony, Cole’s son Rich acknowledged that aspects of his father’s story belonged to the Air Force. It was his job, he said, to share sides of his father not found in history books.
He spoke about his father as a family man whose strength and humor helped him weather enormous challenges, both personal and professional.
“He loved, he cherished, and he laid down himself for us every day,” he said. “Great men do great things. Good men do the right thing. My father was a good man.”
Rich explained that his brother Andy developed spinal meningitis and a fever that seared parts of his brain. Doctors warned Cole and his wife, Marty, that Andy would never be able to walk or speak again. They recommended that he be institutionalized.
But the Coles took Andy home, and they coached him to walk and talk. Andy lived with them for the rest of his life.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson reflected on Cole’s military achievements and bravery. She recalled that the Doolittle Raid was practically a suicide mission.
“The planes had to launch much further away than they had planned,” she said. “Every man knew that it was likely going to be a one-way trip. They didn’t have enough fuel with the forecast headwinds to make it to the Chinese mainland after the strike.”
Wilson grew emotional when she spoke about raiders’ resolve.
“Doolittle gave every man the option not to go. Not a single airman opted out.”
Cole retired from the Air Force in 1966 as a command pilot with more than 5,000 flight hours in 30 different aircraft, more than 250 combat missions and more than 500 combat hours.
But despite advancing age, he was a familiar face at Air Force school houses and installations in the San Antonio area and beyond. In 2016, for example, Cole attended the naming ceremony for the Northrop Grumman B-21 Raider, named in honor of the Doolittle Raiders.
Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force Chief of Staff, said Cole's story continued to inspire long after the war.
“Despite approaching his 100th year, he toured our bases and traveled all over the country, promoting the spirit of service and Air Force heritage among new generations of airmen.”
Goldfein said he imagined the 79 other Doolittle raiders finally welcoming Cole to Heaven, glasses of cognac in hand.
“What a reunion they must be having,” he said.
After the memorial service, the assembled crowd spilled out into the late afternoon sun and looked upward. A group of T-38 aircraft swept overhead, flying in a missing man formation.
Cole will be buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
Carson Frame can be reached at Carson@TPR.org and on Twitter at @carson_frame.