The Air Force on Thursday bid farewell to one of its most storied airmen, Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” Cole, in a service that included tributes from his son, the service’s top leaders, and fly-overs of modern and vintage aircraft from World War II.
Cole, who died April 9 at the age of 103, was the last living link to the Doolittle Raiders — 80 U.S. Army Air Forces airmen who flew 16 modified B-25B Mitchell bombers off of an aircraft carrier to strike mainland Japan, a few months after Pearl Harbor. Their mission took place on April 18, 1942 — 77 years to the day before Cole’s memorial service was held.
Cole, then a second lieutenant, was the co-pilot to Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, who planned and led the audacious, unprecedented raid. Though the mission caused only minor damage to its targets, it sent a message that America was ready to fight back, and buoyed spirits on the homefront.
During the service, which was held in Hangar 41 at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph in Texas, Cole’s son Rich spoke of his father’s quick wit and kind, humble nature.
“Dad would never have gone for this,” Rich Cole said with a chuckle. “But he can’t catch me, so we’re good to go.”
Cole was a loving father and husband, Rich said. He told a story about his brother Andy contracting spinal meningitis, which seared part of his brain. The doctors thought Andy would never walk or talk again and recommended the Cole family institutionalize him.
But Rich Cole said his father and mother brought Andy home, helped him learn to walk and talk again, and Andy lived with them for the rest of his life.
“Great men do great things,” Rich Cole said. “Good men do the right things. My father was a good man.”
Staff Sgt. Michelle Doolittle, who is related to Jimmy Doolittle and is a vocalist with the Air Force Band of the Golden West at Travis Air Force Base in California, sang “America the Beautiful” at the service. And his grandson, Aaron Cole, opened the ceremony by singing the National Anthem.
The service concluded as a bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace” led the attendees outside to view a flyover of an RC-135, two B-52s, two B-25s, and a missing man formation carried out by T-38s. A B-25 with the Doolittle Raiders emblem was also on display by the hangar’s entrance.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson retold the story of the raid, complete with small details that illustrated Cole’s good humor. Cole once told Wilson that he sang the country song “Wabash Cannonball,” tapping his boot, all the way to Tokyo, with Doolittle looking warily at him sideways.
Wilson choked up as she talked about the Raiders’ commitment, even though they all knew they were in for a one-way trip. And Cole never thought of himself as a hero, Wilson said.
“Doolittle gave every man the option not to go, and not a single airman opted out,” Wilson said. “When America was at its lowest point, it needed a hero. It found 80 of them, who volunteered, innovated, and flew into the heart of the enemy.”
Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein talked about walking by the 80 silver goblets honoring each Raider while he attended the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and wondering if he was worthy of following in their footsteps.
And Goldfein imagined Cole reuniting with his Raider comrades in Heaven, with their glasses of cognac ready. “What a reunion they must be having,” he said.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.