Richard Eugene “Dick” Cole, United States Air Force officer, pilot, and one of the Doolittle Raiders during World War II, was born in Dayton, Ohio, on September 7, 1915. He was the fifth of six children of Fred and Mabel L. (Bowen) Cole. Growing up in Dayton, the home of Orville and Wilbur Wright, Dick Cole took an interest in the outdoors and aviation. When he was a boy, he joined the Airplane Modeling League of America and delighted in constructing models of biplanes out of various materials. He drew inspiration from the activities he witnessed at Wright Field, an army flying field; McCook Field, an aeronautical testing site; and Patterson Field. Each facility was located in and around Dayton. Of the many devices perfected at McCook Field, the parachute would later save Cole’s life. As a youngster, he rode his bicycle twenty-five miles just to get a look at his aviation hero James “Jimmy” Doolittle. Cole was also drawn to hunting and the outdoors. Although an indifferent student who viewed school as a prison, Cole aspired to being either a pilot or a forest ranger. Scheduled to graduate from Steele High School in 1933, he delayed graduating for a year to complete a six-month course in aviation mechanics at Park High School in Dayton. Cole completed the course and graduated from Steele High School in 1934.
With the nation stuck in the Great Depression, Dick Cole found it almost impossible to find employment. For two years at a salary of $75 a month, he worked on his aunt’s 360-acre farm, forty miles north of Dayton and milked cows, plowed, harvested, and tended livestock. In 1936 he found employment at National Cash Register, one of Dayton’s largest corporations, and earned around $35 a week. In the fall of 1938 Cole enrolled at Ohio University in Athens, majored in forestry, and completed two years of study. In the summer of 1940 he was accepted in the Civilian Pilot Training Program conducted at Wittenberg College in Springfield, Ohio, where he received his civilian pilot license.
Cole enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet (accepted into the Aviation Cadet Corps) at Fort Thomas, Kentucky, in November 1940. After receiving orders, he reported to Parks Air College in East St. Louis, Illinois, for officers training. In early 1941 Cole arrived in Texas for flight training at Randolph Field (later Randolph Air Force Base) and then Kelly Field (later Kelly Air Force Base). From most indications and from letters that he wrote back home, he fell in love with the region. After completing the flight program, Dick Cole was awarded his flight wings and commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, which, effective March 9. 1942, and as part of a reorganization of the War Department, would be merged into the U. S. Army Air Forces.
Assigned to the 17th Bombardment Group (BG) in Pendleton, Oregon, Lieutenant Cole learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor while he was taking part in a training mission. For a number of weeks in early 1942, he flew anti-submarine patrols on the Pacific West Coast. In February 1942 the 17th BG was reassigned to Columbia, South Carolina. Soon after arriving at his new assignment, Dick Cole volunteered for a secret mission that he would be identified with for the next seventy-seven years.
The operation, soon known as the Doolittle Raid, had its origins after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After discussions with Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold and Adm. Ernest King, President Franklin Roosevelt was convinced that Army Air Forces bombers with some modifications could strike at the Japanese home islands and Tokyo itself. A well-known aviator and aeronautical engineer, Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle was assigned the task of planning and commanding the operation.
With his hand-picked deputy, Lt. Col. John Hilger, Doolittle selected the crew for the mission. The group trained in crews of five on B-25 Mitchell bombers at Eglin Field, Florida, for a month and then were assigned to the West Coast. During training, Lieutenant Cole was co-pilot on a flight in which the pilot became ill. Doolittle himself filled in for the ailing pilot and remained with the crew for the upcoming raid. Two days after leaving California aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, the volunteers learned they were sailing toward Midway Island to meet a task force under the command of Adm. William Halsey. Their mission was to bomb assigned military and industrial targets in Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe.
Sixteen B-25s—stripped-down for maximum fuel capacity—launched from the Hornet on April 18, 1942. The Doolittle Raid consisted of eighty airmen. After a Japanese picket ship spotted the task force, a decision was made to launch the operation more than 150 miles from the original destination and a total of approximately 620 miles from Tokyo. Because of the change in plans, the attack took place in daylight, and the goal of the bombers reaching airfields in China before running out of fuel was slim. In the lead plane of the daring mission, Doolittle and Cole took turns piloting their aircraft towards its destination.
Flying at a low level and surprising the Japanese, the bombers scattered to their assigned targets. The Doolittle crew saw around eighty Japanese aircraft on the ground as they flew toward their target zone in the western section of Tokyo. Cole later recalled, “People on the ground waved to us” and “we could see the moat, the Imperial Palace and downtown Tokyo.” Although the last B-25s to reach Japan were welcomed with both fighter and anti-aircraft fire, all sixteen bombers managed to escape any serious damage and proceeded toward China.
Running low on fuel, all bombers failed to reach any of the airstrips prepared for them in China and crash-landed. One B-25 landed in the Soviet Union where the crew was taken prisoner. About the time their bomber reached China, the Doolittle crew bailed out of their doomed aircraft into the night and survived. Although he suffered a black eye in the ordeal, Cole landed in a pine tree and was otherwise unhurt. At dawn, he made contact with Chinese guerrillas who reunited him with the rest of his crew. Of the eighty airmen that took part in the Doolittle raid, only three died from injuries. The Japanese captured eight airmen—three were later executed, one died in captivity, and four survived three years of brutality as prisoners. With the mission completed, most of the airmen returned to duty and the war.
Although the Doolittle Raid inflicted only minor damage on the Japanese, the operation provided some payback for Pearl Harbor and a major lift to America morale in the early months of World War II. Most Americans took some satisfaction in the fact that American bombers had taken the war to the Japanese homeland. James Doolittle received the Medal of Honor and was recognized as one of the nation’s first heroes of World War II. Doolittle and each airman received the Distinguished Flying Cross for the operation. For Doolittle’s twenty-six-year-old co-pilot, Lt. Richard Cole continued to keep his role in the historic mission in the public’s eye for the next seventy-seven years.
With the raid on Japan behind him, Lieutenant Cole continued to serve in the Pacific Theater of the war. Instead of returning to the states like many of the airmen, he remained in China. For fourteen months, Cole flew C-47 transport planes over the Himalayas—“the Hump”—in the China-Burma-India theater of the conflict. In 1943 he was reassigned to stateside duties and given a brief assignment testing B-24s in Tulsa, Oklahoma. While in Tulsa, he met Lucia Martha “Marty” Harrell. They married in Dallas, Texas, on October 11, 1943. They later had five children and remained married until her death in 2003. In October 1943 Cole was assigned to the First Air Commando Group and participated in the aerial invasion of Burma and flew missions that supported commando ground forces. Cole returned to Tulsa as a test pilot at the Douglas Aircraft Plant in June 1944. With the end of the war in 1945, he remained in the military.
After being relieved from active duty in January 1947, Dick Cole returned to active service in August 1947. During the rest of his career, he saw stateside duties in North Carolina, California, Ohio, and Washington, D. C. He returned to the Far East and flew cargo and administrative missions. Cole also graduated from the State Department Foreign Language Institute, the Air Command and Staff School, and the Armed Forces Staff College. From 1959 to 1962, he worked as an operations adviser to the Venezuelan Air Force. Cole retired from the U. S. Air Force as a lieutenant colonel in December 1966. Over his career, he had racked up more than 5,000 flight hours, flown in thirty different aircraft, flown in more than 250 combat missions, and his log book recorded more than 500 combat hours. Among his numerous honors, Cole received three Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Bronze Star, the Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, and the Air Force Commendation Medal.
After leaving the military, Dick Cole settled in Alamo, Texas. Remaining active, he operated a citrus farm and grew oranges, grapefruit, and avocados for about fifteen years. In the 1980s Lieutenant Colonel Cole and his wife relocated to San Antonio, then nearby to Canyon Lake, and eventually to Comfort. In his final years, he kept busy maintaining his fruit trees and mowing his grass with a 1949 Ford tractor. At age 100, he slowed down by giving up his pickup truck.
For almost seventy-five years, the Doolittle Raiders held reunions to honor the mission and to pay tribute to those that were killed during the mission and those who had passed away since then. A humble person by nature, Dick Cole always downplayed his role in the raid and his military career and commented, “We were just a bunch of guys doing our jobs.” In April 2013 the final reunion took place at Fort Walton Beach, Florida, for the three remaining Raiders—Cole, Ed Saylor, and David Thatcher—who were able to attend. A few months later in November 2013, Cole and those two other Raiders met for a final toast and tribute at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. In May 2014 President Barack Obama awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the Doolittle Raiders.
At the age of 103, Richard Eugene Cole, the last survivor of the Doolittle Raid, died on April 9, 2019, at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. At the time of his death, he was survived by a daughter, Cindy Cole Chal, and two sons, Richard W. Cole and Samuel Cole. Samuel Cole died two days after his father’s death. Cole was preceded in death by his wife of fifty-nine years, Marty, and two children, Andrew and Christina. On April 18, the seventy-seventh anniversary of the Doolittle Raid, a memorial service was held at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. Lt. Col. Dick Cole was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.