Last of WWII’s daring Doolittle Raiders flyers dies at 103

Retired Lt. Col. Richard Cole — the last surviving member of the World War II Doolittle Raiders — died Tuesday in San Antonio, Texas, at the age of 103.

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Upon the news of his death, Cole was praised for his service by Air Force leaders, including Col. Dave Anzuldua, 88th Air Base Wing vice commander at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

“The exploits of the Doolittle Raiders are legendary. As Doolittle’s co-pilot in the lead plane, he was at the forefront of the mission that many historians say turned the tide of the war,” Anzuldua said. “He will be missed.”

During World War II, Cole was then-Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle's co-pilot in the lead bomber in a historic 1942 raid on Japan. Also known as the Doolittle Raid and  the "Tokyo Raid," it was the United States' first counter-strike on Japan, four months after the deadly surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

Eighty airmen of the U.S. Army Air Forces in 16 modified B-25B bombers launched from the aircraft carrier Hornet, about 650 nautical miles east of Japan, to strike Tokyo. The plan was to fly low, bombing targets in Japan then continue to fly west to China.

Perilously low on fuel, fifteen of the planes crash-landed in China while one landed in the Soviet Union.

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Many airmen had to parachute out into the night and Cole jumped out at around 9,000 feet, according to the Air Force. Cole, who had never parachuted before, landed in a tree and used his parachute as a hammock to sleep in until morning.

Of the 80 mission participants, 77 initially survived. The Japanese captured eight airmen in China and held them as prisoners. Five were executed.

Cole had been hospitalized with an infection in the weeks prior to his death, said Tom Casey, president of the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders Association. Cole will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery and a ceremony is being planned to honor him at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, Casey said.

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Cole graduated from Steele High School in Dayton in 1938 and he attended Ohio University for two years before enlisting as an aviation cadet in November 1940, according to the Air Force. He retired from the Air Force in December 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.

Cole, who had since moved to Texas, visited the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force as recently as April 2017.

Cole was at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Raiders' daring raid against Japan in World War II. An estimated 5,000 people turned out for the celebration to catch a glimpse of Cole and for the rare sight of so many B-25 bombers appearing together.

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“Lt. Col. Dick Cole reunited with the Doolittle Raiders in the clear blue skies today. My heart goes out to his friends & family as our Air Force mourns with them,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said via Twitter on Tuesday. “We will honor him & the courageous Doolittle Raiders as pioneers in aviation who continue to guide our bright future.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, took to the U.S. Senate floor on Tuesday to praise Cole and the rest of the Raiders. Brown and U.S. Rep. Mike Turner-R,Dayton, supported bipartisan legislation in 2014 that awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the Doolittle Raiders.

“They rarely drew attention or talked much about their own courage…Now that these men are no longer with us, it’s all the more important that we continue to tell their story,” Brown said on the Senate Floor.

Cole himself expected that fellow Raider, David J. Thatcher, would outlive him because he was six years younger, Cole’s daughter Cindy Chal told this newspaper two years ago. But, Thatcher died at age 94 in June 2016 at his home in Missoula, Montana.

When a Raider dies, a survivor turns a goblet upside-down with the name of the fellow airman engraved on it. When Cole visited Dayton two years ago this month, he also took part in a ceremony for the death of Thatcher.

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“You truly feel sorry that you’re turning over the cup of a comrade,” Cole said at the time. “But, somehow something sneaks into your thoughts about it not being you.”

Casey said Cole had become something of an “adopted father” to him over the last several years as they managed the association and a foundation. It was hard “to find anything wrong” with Cole, who Casey said was known for his “big heart.”

Just hours after Cole’s death, Casey heard from a friend in China who had helped to chronicle the events of the raid. It’s evidence, Casey said, that “respect for this man reverberated all over the world.”

"He was very special," Casey said. "We're going to do all we can to keep the story going not only about what he did but the 79 friends that he just joined."

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