FORT WALTON BEACH, Florida — Eighty gleaming silver goblets stood in a blue velvet-lined case, each engraved with the name of one of the famed Doolittle Raiders.
All had been turned upside down — all but one, bearing the name Richard Cole, co-pilot to Jimmy Doolittle. At the time of his death in 2019, the 103-year-old Cole was the last of the Raiders who had carried out the daring bombing mission over Tokyo that marked the United States’ first counterpunch during World War II. That mission forced Japan to divert forces to safeguard its own island and bolstered the nation’s morale after Pearl Harbor.
For decades following the war, the surviving Raiders would gather privately once a year to toast their departed comrades with fine cognac and then solemnly turn over the goblet for each man who had died.
On Monday, the 80th anniversary of the raid, the final goblet ceremony was held to remember Dick Cole and his fellow Doolittle Raiders — the last chapter of a foundational piece of Air Force lore.
“The Raiders led the way, and many have followed,” said Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, his voice heavy with emotion as he recalled what they did that day during the ceremony at Northwest Florida State College, near Eglin Air Force Base.
Cole, originally from Dayton, Ohio, was just 26 years old when he volunteered for the secret mission that would turn out to be the Doolittle Raid. The Raiders trained at then-Eglin Air Field in March 1942, confined to base, in isolated barracks and strictly ordered not to talk to anyone about what they were doing.
“We knew it would be dangerous, but that’s all,” Cole, who was posthumously promoted to colonel in 2021, said in a 2014 interview with HistoryNet.
But when they started learning how to get B-25 Mitchell bombers airborne in just 500 feet, instead of the 3,000 feet they usually needed, and how to take off from a carrier, they knew they were going to strike Japan.
Cole originally wasn’t supposed to be Doolittle’s co-pilot. But when Doolittle’s intended co-pilot became unable to fly, and the pilot Cole had been training with fell ill, the two men were paired together.
The B-25s were stripped as bare as possible to lighten the load, double the fuel capacity, and allow the bombers to fly as far as they could. Even their rear defensive turrets were pulled out, and painted broomsticks installed in their place as decoy guns to try to dissuade Japanese fighters from trying to strike from the back.
The Raiders and their 16 B-25s set sail on the aircraft carrier Hornet on April 2, 1942. When the Navy ran into a Japanese ship, Navy Adm. William “Bull” Halsey worried their cover had been blown and decided to launch the mission earlier than planned.
Cole described to HistoryNet how rough the conditions were, with water coming over the ship’s bow and causing the planes to slip around the deck. And as the first plane to take off, Doolittle and Cole had the least amount of space to get airborne.
But all 16 bombers made it into the air and reached Japan in four hours, flying about 200 feet above the sea. They pulled up when they reached Tokyo and dropped the ton of bombs each plane carried, and — without enough fuel to make it back to the carrier — flew on to China. Doolittle and Cole’s bomber wasn’t able to land and refuel in China as planned, so they kept flying until they ran out of gas and the crew bailed out.
Doolittle received the Medal of Honor, and Cole and the other Raiders were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
In the HistoryNet interview, Cole called the raid “a turning point in the war.” The Japanese pulled forces back from Australia and India as reinforcements, and sent two carriers to Alaska, mistakenly believing that was where the raid was launched. Cole said this helped even the odds for the U.S. Navy at Midway.
Before the mission, Doolittle promised his Raiders that if they survived, “I’m going to throw you guys the biggest party you’ve ever seen” — and after the war, he did.
The first Doolittle Raider reunion in December 1945 was, by all accounts, legendary for the significant damage they caused to the Miami hotel in which they gathered to celebrate Doolittle’s birthday.
“It must have been a hell of a party,” Air Force Special Operations Command head Lt. Gen. Jim Slife said at the ceremony.
When someone suggested they make the raucous event an annual occasion, Doolittle protested that he couldn’t afford covering the cost of the aftermath. But in 1947, they began gathering each year on the anniversary of the raid in different locations.
In 1959, the city of Tucson, Arizona, presented them with a set of 80 sterling silver goblets, each engraved with the name of one of the Raiders. Those who had already passed had their names engraved only once, upside down. The others had their names engraved two times, once to be read right side up and the other upside down.
Each year, during the goblet ceremony, the Raiders would call the roll, raise a glass of 1896 Hennessey cognac — Doolittle’s favorite, from the year of his birth — to those who had died since they last met, and toast “To those who have gone.” At that point, the goblets of the newly departed Raiders would be reverently turned upside down and put back in the wooden case Cole built himself.
At Monday’s ceremony, Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, commander of Air Education and Training Command and former AFSOC head, said the Raiders “were instrumental in establishing the warrior ethos” of what would soon become the U.S. Air Force.
The roll was then called one last time. One by one, an Air Force special operator in the audience stood to represent each Raider as they were named, and either they or a surviving family member responded “Here.”
Cole’s children, Cindy Cole Chal and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Rich Cole, joined Kendall, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown, Slife and Webb on stage before the case of goblets. Brown hugged Chal, and they each took a glass of cognac Hennessey specially bottled for the occasion.
Kendall delivered the traditional toast, “To the Doolittle Raiders who gave their all in success of their mission, and to those that have joined them since.” All in attendance responded, “To those who have gone,” and the six drained their glasses.
The auditorium was silent as the Air Force leaders returned to their seats onstage, while Cole’s children remained in front of the goblet case.
Rich Cole removed his father’s goblet — the only one in the case that remained upright — from the case’s first column, right below Doolittle’s, and handed it to his sister. Cindy Cole Chal turned it over and handed it back to her brother, who gently replaced it. All goblets were now overturned.
Rich Cole took a step back from the case and saluted his father and his comrades one last time.
In his remarks following the ceremony, Rich Cole asked all currently serving service members to stand.
“The Raider legacy stands before you,” Cole said.
A few minutes later, the keepers of the goblets from Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, shut the four-panel case, latched it and closed the story of the Doolittle Raiders.
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.