Eighty years passed, their character lives on

April 16, 2022
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This Monday marks the 80th anniversary of what history records as “The Doolittle Raid”.

When just over four months after the Pearl Harbor attack, sixteen B-25 Mitchell bombers launched from the deck of the USS Hornet to let the Japanese know they were not beyond the reach of the United States military.

While physical damage was minimal, the morale boost back home and the re-calculations it forced upon the Japanese high command made the raid one of the most successful of the war.

No one column can ever do justice to all eighty who left the flight deck that day, but I hope this summary of two gives you a glimpse into the character that made it happen.

Lt. Colonel James Doolittle wasn’t picked to plan the raid because of his family connections or military politics, he was picked because he was the best.

Though he had resigned his active duty commission in 1930, he spent the next decade in and out of temporary active duty as flight tests required.  With war raging in Europe and Japan on the march he chose to return to full active duty on July 1, 1940.

His resume included the first doctorate in aeronautical engineering issued in the United States (from MIT no less) at age 28, the first take off, flight and landing of an aircraft using instruments alone (1929) and a host of records and trophies, including the Distinguished Flying Cross.

One of many testaments to his character came in March 1942 during training when at then 45 years old he put it upon himself to qualify in carrier techniques along side his men or he would give up his spot to lead the mission and fly as a co-pilot.

Lt. Richard E. “Dick” Cole was 26 years old when the plane he was co-piloting cleared the deck and in the pilot seat, none other than his boyhood hero Doolittle himself.

Born in 1915, in Dayton Ohio, as a young boy he would ride his bike to the Army Air Corps’ first test base, McCook Field, and watch those pioneers of aviation push the technology of the day to the limits of the day.

One of those pilots was Doolittle himself.  First, as a test pilot in ’23 and a year later as he was  earning his second Distinguished Flying Cross for his aircraft acceleration tests that became the foundation of his master’s thesis.

Two men, born nineteen years apart, vastly different backgrounds, yet bound forever by a love for flight and the fate of war.

The joy of history isn’t the dates and stats that make it into the books, it’s the personal memories of the men who lived it.  Those recollections that give us a glimpse back through that window in time of how incidental moments intersect to become the history for the ages.

No better example than an April 10th 2019, David Lauterborn post on historynet.com (the day after Dick Cole passed) of a 2014 Military History interview where he recalled the moment that ensured the mission would be forever known as the “Doolittle Raid”

Interviewer:  The story goes that Hap Arnold hadn’t intended to let Doolittle fly on the mission, that he’d just wanted him to plan it. Did Doolittle ever tell you about that?

Cole:  Yes. When he went to report to Arnold, Doolittle told him, “I want to lead the mission.” Arnold said, “I can’t spare you.” They had a few words. Jimmy badgered. Finally, Arnold said, “Well, go see General [Millard “Miff”] Harmon,” who was [chief of staff] of the Army Air Forces. So, Doolittle went to his office, stuck his head in the door and said, “Hap says I can lead the mission if you say it’s OK.” Harmon said, “Well, if it’s OK with him, it’s OK with me.” At that point Doolittle closed the door and ran down the stairway. He said that on the way down he heard Harmon said, “But Hap, I just told him he could go!”

There you have it; A first-hand account of how a Lt. Colonel played two Generals to get himself into the pilot seat of the lead plane in one of the most famous missions in military history.  Not for his own glory, but to lead the men under his command.

When Dick Cole passed, we lost the last physical connection to that moment in time.  There will be no more interviews, no more questions, no more recollections.

And it is with that in mind, that I beg you, if you know a WWII vet, ask, write and record.  Get every word, every memory you can.  Because the time is fast coming when it won’t be just Dick Cole, the last from one mission, it will be John Doe, the last from it all.

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