Seventy three years to the day after Richard E. Cole sat next to legendary airman Jimmy Doolittle on a bombing run against Japan, the 99-year-old World War II aviator presented the Congressional Gold Medal commemorating the historic raid to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
The medal, the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow, will be displayed permanently at the museum.
The Doolittle Raiders audacious mission on April 18, 1942 – imprinted on history in the first U.S. strike of the war against the Japanese home islands — electrified American morale after the devastating Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and caused the Japanese to change strategies in the war.
Cole was one of 80 Army Air Force airmen who launched in 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers off the deck of the U.S.S Hornet in the daring raid that bombed Tokyo and four other Japanese cities.
The Dayton native who lives in Comfort, Texas and fellow Raider, David J. Thatcher, 93, of Missoula, Montana, were at the medal presentation ceremony Saturday with dozens of family members of many of the other airmen who flew on the mission. The two World War II airmen are the sole surviving Raiders.
Air Force Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger, the first four-star female general in the Air Force, told the Raiders they were an inspiration to airmen today.
“The courage, grit and determination of the Doolittle Raiders provided our military and our nation a shining example of how much the human spirit can accomplish even when faced with insurmountable odds,” said Wolfenbarger, commander of the Air Force Materiel Command.
Cole said over the years the Raiders received more than their share of recognition.
“I really think that the Raiders should be honored, but they should be honored no more than the many, many people that took part in the fighting in World War II,” he said in a telephone interview days before the presentation.
The World War II bomber pilot quipped to 800 people at the presentation Saturday “tonight’s affair couldn’t have been planned more accurately.”
The 13-hour mission happened on a Saturday and “about this time David Thatcher was on the beach in China safe with the rest of his crew while I was hanging by my parachute in a tree.”
Forced to take off hours early because a Japanese patrol boat spotted the U.S.S. Hornet and its escort ships, after the raid most of the planes crash landed in China and one landed in the Soviet Union. Most of the Raiders fought again during the war. Three died when their aircraft were lost. Eight others were captured, three of whom were executed and one died in captivity.
A B-25, nicknamed Panchito, flew the Congressional Gold Medal on a ceremonial flight Saturday morning from Wright-Patterson. Cole and Thatcher, who was a gunner, witnessed the flight from the ground.
The medal arrived from Washington, D.C., where museum director John “Jack” Hudson accepted it last Wednesday from congressional leaders in a ceremony at Emancipation Hall on Capitol Hill.
U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, said the two Raiders had an opportunity to attend the Washington ceremony, but choose to come instead to the Air Force museum.
“When I was thanking both of them, both said to me, ‘I don’t know too many people in Washington, but I do know a lot of people in Dayton,’” Turner said. “Well, I can tell you both I bet a lot of people know both of you and they certainly all know the story of the Doolittle Raiders.”
Beginning in 2012, Brian Anderson, 63, of Salem, N.H., lobbied congressional leaders to bestow the medal on the Raiders.
Heeding Anderson’s plea, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, introduced companion resolutions in Congress. Anderson and his wife Cynthia visited Washington and the offices of each of the 535 lawmakers of Congress to get the two-thirds majority needed in both houses to sign on as co-sponsors.
“She emailed, I used the telephone and we just harangued them until we got it done,” said Anderson, the sergeant-at-arms for the Doolittle Raiders Association. He called on veterans’ groups to add their voices. “We just kept pushing, pushing, pushing.”
Brown’s resolution was introduced the same day Doolittle Raider Thomas C. Griffith of Cincinnati died at age 96 in February 2013. Since then, two other Raiders died this year, Edward J. Saylor at age 94 near Seattle, Washington and Robert L. Hite at age 95 in Nashville, Tennessee.
“Time was not on our side,” Anderson said. “Time was mission critical to get this thing done.”
With tears welling in his eyes, his fight reached its final destination with the gold medal presentation. “I’m sure the 78 other guys that are up there are having a beer looking at it themselves,” he said.
The museum also was the home of the final toast of the Doolittle Raiders in November 2013. A private ceremony Saturday also turned upside down two more of the 80 silver goblets representing the Raiders, to signify the deaths of Hite and Saylor. Two remain upright.
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