–By Marie Taylor
I have had the recent pleasure of reading the book Dick Cole’s War by Dr. Dennis Okerstrom, published by University of Missouri Press. This book of historical non-fiction came along at the perfect time recently, and I can honestly say it has been one of the most interesting books on World War II history that I have ever read.
In my day job as a Preservation Technician for the National Archives-St. Louis, I have had the recent honor of cleaning documents for the DPAA, the government organization in charge of finding and identifying the remains of servicemen from previous conflicts. I was working on a record of a young man, an Army Air Corps pilot, whose plane went missing over Burma during World War II. “Burma?” I thought. “What the heck was he doing in Burma?”
Despite the fact that I am fascinated by World War II and it is the nature of my job, I had not known about the United States’ war efforts over Burma. I was soon distracted by a letter in the record that contained beautiful penmanship (for those rolling their eyes at my distraction, I just want to say that it was exceedingly good handwriting), and forgot to dig deeper into this role of Burma.
Well, when you throw a question like that out into the universe, sometimes you get the answer in the most roundabout way. It was that same week that a friend of mine invited me along to an event that was taking place at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. This event, sponsored by the museum and Park University, would feature the last Doolittle Raider, Lt. Col. Richard E. “Dick” Cole (ret.) as an associate speaker with Dr. Dennis Okerstrom, the writer of Dick Cole’s War.
Not knowing too much about the Doolittle Raid, I was intrigued and researched the infamous event. I will not go further into the event in Kansas City, except to say that it was a fantastic night that I will never forget. If you are curious about the night, feel free to read writer/editor Sean Derrick’s take here: History in Person: Richard Cole – Last Doolittle Raider.
After the event, I was given a copy of Dick Cole’s War to read and review. To say that I was up for the opportunity would be an understatement. Having met Dick Cole and done a little research leading up to the events of that night, I was intrigued by his story and wanted to learn more. This book did not disappoint, and my hat is off to Dr. Okerstrom for pursuing Dick Cole’s story, even when the modest Mr. Cole initially tried to discourage him from writing it.
The book Dick Cole’s War follows the true exploits of Lieutenant Colonel Richard “Dick” Cole USAF (ret.) during World War II. Not your average Army Air Corps pilot (if “average” could be applied to pilots during that time), Cole served as Jimmy Doolittle’s copilot during the infamous Doolittle Raid, as a “Hump” pilot during the China-Burma-India campaign, and finally as a C-47 pilot and Air Commando during the invasion of Burma. The reader follows Cole through his early life in Dayton, Ohio, to his career as an Army Air Corps pilot and beyond. Although the book largely focuses on the military campaigns Cole took part in, there were still definitive personal moments that helped me connect with the man that is Dick Cole.
If you’re a World War II history buff like me, the detailed accounts of each mission will enthrall you. Dr. Okerstrom has succeeded in creating a book that completely transports the reader back in time, and I often felt as though I was on the edge of my seat in anticipation for what was to come. Despite my own enthusiasm, I would caution any reader that is unfamiliar with the larger events or key players of WWII to do some general research before starting this book. The book quickly delves into specific military plans and figures, which can get confusing if you don’t have more background information.
A key aspect to the book is the author’s personal affinity for aviation, as he writes in extreme detail about each aircraft used by Dick Cole. I would never have called myself a plane enthusiast, but thanks to this book I can now tell you the differences between a B-25 Mitchell bomber, a B-26 Marauder, and a C-47 “Gooney” plane. I don’t know when this knowledge will come in handy for me (maybe if I’m ever stuck in an elevator with Dr. Okerstrom), but I feel like a better person for knowing it. While the information about each aircraft felt overwhelming at times, I appreciated the details in order to understand the people flying them. Aviation was coming into its own during this time, and to understand the risks and uncertainty of wartime flight you need to know the equipment involved.
While reading the book, I was surprised to find myself even more engrossed in the missions that came after the Doolittle Raid. Just when you think that the most adventurous part of Mr. Cole’s life is over (such as making history with Jimmy Doolittle), you become captivated by the true tale of the Hump pilots and the Air Commandos. While the Doolittle Raid was a onetime shot at boosting morale and striking a blow on Japan, the dangerous route of the Hump pilots was a long series of maneuvers meant to erode the length of Japan’s influence. Without the Hump pilot’s steady work in ferrying supplies to China, a critical ally would have been lost. As Okerstrom outlines in his book, a defeat on the China front could have changed the outcome of the war.
This leads us back to Burma, and back to my pilot from the DPAA record. What I learned from this book is that many Army Air Corps pilots (many no older than teenagers) lost their lives over Burma in an effort to bring supplies to China. While some people today understand the role of the European and Pacific fronts in World War II, very few mention the China-Burma-India campaign and the sacrifice of those men. That, among other reasons, is why this book provides us with a special view into World War II history.
Not quite your everyday soldier, and not exactly a key figure to the planning of these events, Dick Cole is still a fascinating and humble character that had a front row seat to some of the most exciting missions of World War II. I think Dr. Okerstrom is correct when he writes that the world will never see heroes like Dick Cole again.
This book provides extensive knowledge of some of the most important missions of World War II, and throughout it all we get to see these events through the eyes of a man who lived it. Famous historical figures appear alongside the men they commanded, and I cannot help but feel a human connection to all those that risked life and limb for the hope of a better tomorrow. World War II buffs will love this book, but I really hope others will give it a chance. As for me, this book will be a permanent fixture in my library (as soon as I steal this copy from my editor), and I cannot wait to read more works by Dr. Okerstrom.