–By Sean Derrick
Last Wednesday marked the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii that awakened the Sleeping Giant and catapulted the United States into WWII. To commemorate this anniversary the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, in cooperation with the National Archives in Kansas City and Park University hosted an event with a very special guest; Lt. Col. Richard Cole. Mr. Cole is the last living member of the famed Doolittle Raid – America’s daring response to Pearl Harbor.
A small group of us made the trip to see the event, and the experience turned out much better than I ever intended to be.
As a historian I have a fond appreciation of items of historical significance, and that is heightened even further by living history. That is, someone who had participated in a historical event of considerable time past and is still living. Mr. Cole is living history, and at 101 years old I knew I wouldn’t have many more opportunities to see Mr. Cole speak so close to where I live.
Being based in Saint Louis, less than four hours from Kansas City, driving was certainly an option. I was lucky enough to snag four tickets to the event which was to be held at the wonderful National WWI Museum and Memorial in the J.C. Nichols Auditorium. I chose that number after talking with a couple colleagues of mine who expressed interest in making the trip with me.
My initial intention was just to go watch him speak, observe history, and return that night. It became so much more. You see, I work as a Preservation Technician for the National Archives at the National Personnel Records Center in Saint Louis, treating and preserving the military personnel records that were damaged in a massive fire in 1973.
I then had a thought; What if I can get Mr. Cole to sign something for me? I could give it to my employer to hang in the building along with other historical items, being that it relates directly to who we are preserving records of/for anyway. After consulting with one of the higher-ups to ask if they had any interest he said yes and then authorized me to give Mr. Cole a gift. More on that later.
Meanwhile, Archivist Michael Tarabulski, one of the group that would head over to Kansas City with me, started things off by researching for and finding Mr. Cole’s original draft registration card and sending it to Kimberlee Ried at the Kansas City branch of the National Archives. Mrs. Ried presented the framed card to Mr. Cole that night at the event.
In order to appreciate who Mr. Cole is and what he participated in we must give a background to what the Doolittle Raid was, for those who may not know of the story.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor the United States spent the next four months with one bad news story on the war after another. Hong Kong fell, as did Burma, the U.S. Islands of Wake and Guam, a crushing defeat to an allied strike force in the Battle of the Java Sea, and the fall of the Philippines. The latter resulted in the horrendous Bataan Death March which resulted in over 5,200 American serviceman deaths. U.S. morale was low both in the military and civilian aspects.
Almost immediately after Pearl Harbor President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered an attack on the Japanese homeland. After an idea brought about by a submarine officer was chosen it was given to then Lt. Col James Doolittle to oversee and carry out. He was to figure out how to launch North American B-25 Mitchell medium bombers off an aircraft carrier, on a much shorter runway than was the norm and at a speed of only 60 mph, compared to the normal 90 mph needed.
Doolittle immediately went to the 17th Bombardment Group at Pendleton, OR, home of the B-25’s to seek out volunteers (All the men had to volunteer FDR had commanded). He needed 80 men and got over 140 who wanted to participate. A thorough selection process screened out the top 80, only being told that their mission was “very dangerous”.
The plan was to sneak the newly commissioned USS Hornet, along with the USS Enterprise and several cruisers, destroyers and tankers (task force 16), proceed in radio silence to sneak up to within 450 nautical miles of Japan where the B-25’s would take off. They would bomb targets in six Japanese cities and head for a friendly airbase in China.
Trouble was they were spotted by a couple Japanese fishing boats who radioed to Japan the sighting of the carriers and the cruisers. It was decided the raid would start then, was moved up by 10 hours and 200 miles further from Japan. This meant that they would probably not have enough fuel to make it to China, but they pushed on. Led by Doolittle and Cole, who was Doolittle’s co-pilot in Bomber 1, all 16 bombers took off successfully in very choppy conditions.
They flew low a few dozen feet over the water to avoid detection, climbed to 1,500 feet to make their bombing run and headed south east to China. One bomber, however, decided to land without authorization in Vladivostok, U.S.S.R. due to fuel and logistics issues.
Every other plane barely made it to the coast, helped by a strong tail wind, but had to bail out due to no landing surface and poor weather (and no fuel). One serviceman died in a crash, eight were captured by Japanese forces, three executed, and one died of starvation in a Japanese prison camp. After a few harrowing days then Lt. Cole rendezvoused safely with Doolittle with the help of grateful Chinese civilians.
The Japanese were mortified and shocked. They immediately withdrew several forces to protect the home island from further attacks. This resulted in the U.S. victories in Midway and Guadalcanal. It also provided a much needed boost to morale of both the military and civilians anxious about a war they were dragged into.
We took off from Saint Louis about 1PM and listened to several podcasts about the Doolittle Raid, which helped pass the time. There are several good podcasts, websites and books out there with very detailed stories about the raid. Many of these offering different perspectives on the raid.
The event started at 6:30 and was preceded by a mingle session in the lobby. I made my way to a table that was set up selling books, “Dick Cole’s War” by Dr. Dennis Okerstrom – Park University Professor who would be presenting the event (We will have a review of this book on MidwestRewind.com soon). There I got to meet with Mr. Cole’s daughter who was helping to sell the books and poster sized images of the B-25 Mitchell bomber that Mr. Cole flew in.
Most of my colleagues have a deep appreciation for history as well and Mr. Tarabulski, Marie Taylor (Preservation Technician for the National Archives) and myself found our way to our seats. We were anxious to hear Mr. Cole speak about this daring mission that has been cemented as one of the most notable stories of WWII.
Dr. Okerstrom spoke the majority of the time, referring to Mr. Cole for his take on certain subjects. Mr. Cole spoke with clarity and conviction, with a sharp mind and spirit. He had to switch chairs because of what he called a “wardrobe malfunction”, one of his hearing aids stopped working.
His wit and candor about events on the mission were immensely riveting. Every member of the audience sat and listened intently, many inching forward in their seats to get a better focus on his words. They were witnessing history right in front of them, giving them a unique glimpse into the past.
He recalled several stories, including quipping that “I was so calm, cool and collected that I pulled the ripcord so hard I gave myself a black eye” as he jumped from the plane. However, it was nearly much worse than that because he had to be freed by Doolittle on account of his chute getting caught on his seat as he tried to jump.
He also recalled how his initial pilot got sick and had to bow out. Fearing they would be replaced by another crew Cole quickly pleaded with his commanders for a substitute. He got one in Doolittle, who was not initially part of the flight crews because he was deemed “Too valuable” by General Henry “Hap” Arnold. Doolittle ignored Arnold and took command anyway, eager to see action and lead his men he had trained for this mission.
He talked about being bored on the long flight to Tokyo and discussing with Doolittle how to best ditch the plane in the choppy China Sea afterwards in shark-infested waters.
Several members of the military, including cadets at Park University, read excerpts of Mr. Cole’s personal letters home, offering a moment frozen in time on paper.
Mr. Cole even fielded questions from the audience about his experience, and gave those in attendance a chance to interact with him. He answered every question and was graceful and grateful for the interest in the raid.
Back to the gift I was to bring: I was authorized to copy and hand deliver Mr. Cole’s entire personnel record to him after the event! Which meant I had to scan the records. Unfortunately, much of Mr. Cole’s enlisted records were destroyed by the massive fire I mentioned previously. Only eight pages survived.
Wanting to be able to give him more I kept looking. And with the help of my lead tracked down and found his officer record, all 405 pages of it. It is something that would be much more valuable to him and his family than just eight pages.
So I met with Mr. Cole after the event and presented him and his family with his official records. He was very gracious and joked “Now I can’t hide anymore”.
The Raiders were welcomed back to the U.S. to much fanfare, with every member receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross. Those killed or wounded received the Purple Heart, and three received the Silver Star for helping wounded crew evade Japanese troops. A Missouri town even renamed itself to Doolittle, MO afterwards, showing how much this raid meant to morale back home.
Mr. Cole has served our country to the fullest and he, along with the rest of the Raiders while still alive, saw it as their duty to give back to the country even after their service time was up. That he still travels to speak at events at 101 years of age speaks volumes of the type of man Mr. Cole is, and as an inspiration for all to aspire to.
Mr. Cole, ever so humble, does not like to be called a hero. He referred to himself in the event as “excess baggage” along for the ride that Doolittle was leading. But, believe me, every man on that mission knowing the odds were against them, going out on what was essentially a one way ride, against certain heavy opposing fire, to be hunted down by Japanese forces, just to “do their job”. Well, that is the definition of hero in my book.
Do not pass up the opportunity to see him in person if you can. You will not regret it.