Seventy years have passed since then-Lt. Richard E. Cole sat in the co-pilot seat next to Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle in the cockpit of their B-25 Mitchell and dropped bombs over Japan as part of the historic Tokyo raid April 18, 1942.
On that day, Cole remembers watching the bombs explode beneath him, destroying several factories that were supplying resources to the Japanese war machine.
Now 96 years old, he has lived a lifetime since that day, but neither time nor age have erased the memories of that mission from his mind. He can still vividly recall every detail.
These days, though, he’s running out of buddies to swap stories with.
Cole, who retired as a lieutenant colonel, is one of only five surviving Doolittle Raiders. War, disease and time have taken the rest of the original 80. Cole, retired Maj. Thomas Griffin, Staff Sgt. David Thatcher and Lt. Cols. Robert Hite and Edward Saylor are all in their 90s.
While the Raiders themselves may be disappearing, their stories of daring, courage and perseverance are undying.
On the morning of the raid, 16 B-25s, holding five men each, took off from the deck of the USS Hornet and headed for Japan. None of the pilots had ever taken off from an aircraft carrier before, and the men knew their fuel reserves might not stretch to allow them to return. Their mission: drop bombs on Japan, destroy as many of their targets as possible and damage the Japanese psyche by taking the fight to Japanese soil.
“We were all ready to go,” Cole said. “The anticipation was nerve-racking, but we were saying, ‘You started it, and we’re going to finish it.’”
After a successful takeoff, all of the B-25s made it to Japan and dropped bombs on their respective targets, which included factories, steel mills and several military compounds.
“We dropped our bombs and got the heck out of there,” Cole said.
The bombers then headed for China, hoping to find a friendly area to land. Dense fog and heavy rain made the going slow and the B-25s began running out of fuel. With no other option, the crews either crash-landed or bailed out of their bombers with little idea of what waited for them on the ground. One Raider died after bailing out and two more drowned in the waters off the coast of China.
By the end of the day, all but one bomber was lost, three Raiders were dead, eight were captured, and the rest found themselves behind enemy lines in Japanese-occupied China. The only surviving B-25 landed in the Soviet Union, where the plane and crew were interned for more than a year.
The mission was still considered a success and, even though some of the Raiders died, the number of men who made it safely home exceeded expectations.
“We all knew this was a dangerous mission and a lot of us really thought we wouldn’t make it,” Thatcher said.
Amazingly, all 80 of the Raiders volunteered for the mission, not knowing exactly what they would be doing, where they would be going or even when the mission would take place. On the day of the mission, each man was given the opportunity to back out, no questions asked. Not one did.
Instead, they all donned their uniforms, jumped into their planes, fired up their engines and flew into the history books. Their actions have been recorded in magazines, books and movies, and to this day, people still gather by the hundreds at events where the Doolittle Raiders appear.
The Raiders didn’t attempt this daring mission as a publicity stunt. Their resolve wasn’t grounded in vanity or the pursuit of fame, but rather in frustration and righteous indignation.
“The Japanese had attacked us, and we were mad,” Griffin said. “We wanted to hit ‘em back.”
The raid didn’t just drop bombs and flatten buildings. It also raised the spirits of a nation. The daring mission boosted American morale, which had been severely tested by four long months of defeat and loss after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
It also sent a message.
“It gave the initial warning to the Japanese that we were coming, and they had more than they could handle,” Griffin said.
The surviving Raiders recognize the importance of the mission, but they also are quick to point out that they had a lot of help in accomplishing it, from the Sailors aboard the Hornet to the senior leaders who planned the raid, to the local Chinese villagers who aided the Raiders’ escape.
“We don’t like to be singled out,” Cole said. “We were just part of a big team and a lot of other people made this mission happen. We were just the guys who flew the planes.”