Taking off from the deck of a pitching aircraft carrier calls for flying skills that few possess, especially when the airplane is a cumbersome bomber that was never designed for such an aerodynamic maneuver. Seventy-seven years ago that minor detail did not deter a pugnacious Lt. Col. by the name of Jimmy Doolittle or his copilot Lt. Richard Eugene Cole who died on April 9 in San Antonio.
Cole was the last of Doolittle’s all-volunteer force of 80 airmen who launched their 16 twin-engine B-25 Mitchell bombers from the flight deck of the USS Hornet on April 18, 1942, in what became known as the “Tokyo Raid.” At a time when the U.S. was still reeling from Pearl Harbor and the Japanese onslaught in the Pacific, the United States was sorely in need of a morale booster.
The initial plan called for the pilots to commence their attack from a point some 400 miles from the Japanese mainland, fly undetected at wave-top altitude and after dropping their 500-pound bombs on Tokyo, continue to China where they would land at friendly airfields. Thinking they had been discovered after the appearance of a Japanese trawler, the Americans elected to execute an early departure, while the bombers were at the extreme limit of their fuel range.
Even so, the raiders’ arrival over Tokyo caught the Japanese by complete surprise, with many residents waving at the planes in the mistaken notion that they were friendly. The pilots encountered little resistance and after dropping their bombs turned toward China.
“I had my own confidence, but we all had Jimmy Doolittle,” Cole told the San Antonio Express-News in an earlier interview. “His confidence flowed into us, and we would have followed him anywhere.”
The confidence was well placed. Doolittle had pioneered the use of instruments to fly blind in the clouds, broken aviation speed records and completed the nation’s first cross-country flight in 1922. His flying prowess was matched by an intellect that allowed him to earn a doctorate in aeronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In took all of Doolittle’s skill to keep the Tokyo raiders alive. Flying at night in a thunderstorm over China – with fuel exhausted – he gave the order for his crew to bail out. None of the men had ever “hit the silk,” and Cole told the Express-News that he yanked so hard on the rip cord that he gave himself a black eye. He also landed in a tree where his parachute snagged in the branches. The 26-year-old hung there all night before cutting himself down the next morning. Of the 80 men, who started the improbable attack, 72 survived, including Cole.
Cole remained in China for 14 months, flying cargo planes. He was then assigned stateside to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he tested B-24 Liberators fresh out of the factory from Consolidated Aircraft.
Interestingly, at least for me, my wife’s uncle, retired USAF Lt. Col. Allen Gaston, is also among the last survivors of another famous WWII bomber raid – the attack on the Romanian oil fields at Ploesti that was known as Operation Tidal Wave.
One hundred, seventy-eight B-24s took off from Benghazi, Libya, on Aug. 1, 1943, crossed the Mediterranean, the Pindus Mountains in Albania and southern Yugoslavia before attacking Ploesti at tree-top level. The surprise attack was anything but, as German antiaircraft batteries raked the low-flying formations. At the end of the day, 53 aircraft and 660 air crewmen had been lost.
Allen, who will turn 100 this November, also lives part of the year in San Antonio with his wife, Julia. I don’t know if he knew Dick Cole, but I plan to ask.
Cole’s son, Rich, a former F-15 pilot, told the Express-News that the day before his father died, he asked the nurses at Brooke Army Medical Center to help him get up. The nurses thought the old veteran wanted to sit in his chair, so they helped him up and steered him in that direction.
“‘No, I want to stand up,’” Rich quoted his father as saying. When the nurses asked him why, he said, “‘Because I want to die standing up.’”
And so it is with this “Greatest Generation” that has all but left us – but with something better than they found.