MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. - -- Lieutenant Richard Cole and the 17th Bombardment Group had never seen combat, but that changed once Japanese bombs surprised Pearl Harbor, flinging America into World War II. Cole found himself volunteering for a near impossible, top-secret mission known as the Doolittle Raid.
"We felt we were part of a big team to help the war effort," said Cole. "We were just happy we were able to do that."
Cole, 97, now a retired lieutenant colonel, was one of 15 Air Force veterans honored last week during Air Command and Staff College's annual capstone event, the Gathering of Eagles.
Hailed as the first air strike on Japan, the Doolittle Raid boosted America's sagging morale from the war's continuous bad news.
Though the bombing did very little structural damage, it was influential in stopping Japanese expansion, eventually leading to the war's success, according to Air University Director of History Dr. Robert Kane.
"From Dec. 7, 1941, through April 19, 1942, the news on all fronts was doom and gloom," said Kane. "April 19 newspapers across America read, 'America strikes back, Tokyo bombed!'It was a huge lift in morale for the American people at the time like nothing else could have. The Japanese people faltered."
Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, near McCook Field, Cole was inspired by his hero, Lt. Col. James Doolittle, to join the Army Air Corps and began flying B-25 Mitchell bombers for the 34th Bombardment Squadron.
Four months after the Pearl Harbor attack, Cole flew over the Pacific toward Japan in a modified B-25, with Doolittle in the cockpit.
Doolittle, given the assignment of recruiting pilots for a retaliation attack on Japan, sought out Cole and his squadron as the most qualified B-25 aviators for the mission. He could not reveal to the team the nature of the mission, except it was highly dangerous and top secret. Cole and his fellow pilots all agreed.
"He wanted volunteers for a dangerous mission," he said. "They put a notice on the bulletin board for our squadron, which we were supposed to read every day. I just made the mistake of having read it that day, so I put my name on it."
A single month of training and modifications to the bombers were made before they were ready to strike. Cole and the other raiders would have to take off with less than 500 feet of runway on an aircraft carrier with bombers loaded with extra fuel tanks, one ton of bombs and five crew members.
The crews trained at Eglin Field, Fla., for low-level navigation, short takeoffs and bombing runs, according to Kane, who became familiar with their training after working in the history office at Eglin Air Force Base from 2005-2009.
"They were flying from Eglin down to Fort Myers [Florida] and across the long width of the Gulf of Mexico to Ellington Field south of Houston, Texas, to train on low-level, over-water navigation," he explained. "They would be spending a lot of time this way with no landmarks and only celestial navigation to use."
Finally the code, "Jimmy, it's time to get on your horse," came from Lt. Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, then chief of the Army Air Forces, directing Doolittle, Cole and 78 other pilots, bombardiers, gunners and navigators to begin the mission. They and 16 bombers boarded the USS Hornet on the West Coast and learned about their part in the attack on Japan.
Taking off from the aircraft carrier April 18, 1942, the team jetted off 12 hours ahead of schedule and 400 miles further out than expected after Japanese patrol boats relaying messages to the mainland of the Americans' presence were intercepted and destroyed.
Cole was not expecting to take off so soon.
"I thought it was going to be a bit longer," said Cole. "The voice over the address system said, 'Army pilots, man your planes.' I was in line to get my breakfast, but not wanting to get in bad with Col. Doolittle, instead of getting breakfast, I went immediately to the flight deck."
Thirteen hours of manual flying, Cole, as Doolittle's co-pilot, was in the lead plane and made the first bombing run over Tokyo's war plants, oil centers, factories and military installations.
With the added miles in flight, 15 bombers ran out of fuel after completing their raid and could not make it to the designated rendezvous point in China where they would be helped. Doolittle's aircraft managed to catch a tail wind, which carried the crew over friendly China, allowing everyone to safely bail out.
Cole and the others had never before used a parachute.
"What worried us was what and where are you going to hit?" Cole said. "Fortunately for me, my chute drifted over a pine tree and got caught up in it, and I ended up 12 feet off the ground. It was raining and windy, and, decided I was going to stay in the tree."
Cole climbed down the next morning and found Doolittle in the village Chu Chow 20 miles away. Most of the other crew members had survived as well and were able to eventually return home to the States. Eight, however, were captured by Japanese and were executed or imprisoned, five were interned in the Soviet Union and three died in crash landings.
From the raid, Japan's security was damaged and was forced to pull back its defenses and stop any further expansion into the Indian Ocean and South Asia. This change in strategy ultimately led to the Allied victory at the Battle of Midway June 5-7, 1942, turning the tide of the war against Japan.
Cole continued to fly combat missions till the end of WWII, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters. He retired in 1967 and continued to have reunions with Doolittle and many of the other raiders. Only four are still living: Cole, retired Lt. Col. Ed Saylor, retired Lt. Col. Robert Hite and retired Staff Sgt. David Thatcher.