As he prepared to take off from the aircraft carrier Hornet on April 18, 1942, now retired Air Force Lt. Col. Richard Cole had no idea that his mission was about to change the course of World War II.
Cole, then an Army second lieutenant, was the co-pilot for Army Lt. Col. James "Jimmy" Doolittle, who was leading 16 B-25 bombers on an audacious mission to bomb Japan.
The Doolittle Raid marked the first time that bombers would attempt to take off from a carrier. The planes had less than 250 feet of runway, and as the first plane to take off, Doolittle and Cole's B-25 had the least amount of room to try to get enough speed to make it off the deck.
"I wasn't worried particularly because I was flying with the best pilot," Cole said on Monday.
Cole was a featured guest at the world premiere of the American Veterans Center's documentary "Doolittle's Raiders: A Final Toast," which is set to air on PBS this fall. The documentary looks at the final reunion of the surviving Doolittle Raiders in November 2013. At the time, four Raiders were alive. Two have since died.
Monday's event was part of the GI Film Festival, for which Military Times is one of the sponsors.
At nearly 100 years old, Cole is one of the two surviving Doolittle Raiders. He and Staff Sgt. David Thatcher represent the 80 airmen who took off from the Hornet with no hope of returning to the carrier.
Their plan was to land at airfields in China that were controlled by forces loyal to Gen. Chiang Kai-shek after bombing their targets in Japan, but when the Hornet was detected by a Japanese ship, Doolittle decided to launch the bombers 200 miles from the planned start point. The chances of the airmen reaching China were slim.
When asked why he volunteered for such a dangerous mission, Cole replied modestly: "Well, the country's at war and that's my job."
The Doolittle Raid was meant to lift Americans' morale at a time when the war was going badly. In the four months since Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had launched a Blitzkrieg across the Pacific, capturing Wake Island and Guam. By the time of the mission, the Japanese were in the process of taking the Philippines.
Doolittle was selected by Lt. Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, commander of Army Air Forces, to lead the highly secret raid on Japan. Despite taking off so far from Japan, the bombers managed to attack Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, and Kobe.
Cole was effusive with praise for Doolittle, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for leading the raid.
"He was, I'd say, the epitome of human being," Cole said.
After bombing Tokyo, Cole's B-25 caught a tail wind that helped the crew make it to China, where they bailed out. Cole's parachute got caught in a pine tree and he spent the night about 12 feet off the ground in the rain and wind. He later made it to the village of Chu Chow, from where Chinese patriots helped him and other Doolittle Raiders make it home.
It has been widely reported that the Japanese killed 250,000 Chinese in retaliation for helping the Doolittle Raiders.
Lyushun Shen, Taiwan's top representative to the U.S., said it is important to remember to that cooperation between the U.S. and the Chiang Kai-shek government helped make the Doolittle Raid possible.
"This is the beginning of our military alliance," he told Air Force Times at the documentary's premiere. "So we honor not only this raid, we honor the military alliance during World War II."
For the World War II generation, the Doolittle Raid was a momentous event because it was the first time that the U.S. was able to strike back at Japan, said Jim Roberts, president of the American Veterans Center, which paid for the documentary on the raid.
The raid also came as a shock to the Japanese, prompting them to try to expand their defense perimeter to include Midway Atoll, Roberts said. The battle of Midway in June 1942 became the turning point of the Pacific War, when the U.S. sank four Japanese carriers and killed hundreds of the most experienced Japanese pilots.
Marine Maj. Gen. Michael Regner also attended Monday's event and was able to thank Cole for the example he and the rest of the World War II veterans set. Regner's father flew a B-25 in Europe and was qualified to fly 11 aircraft, he said.
Even with all the heroism that service members displayed during World War II, the Doolittle Raid is in a category of its own, Regner said.
"Army aircraft onboard a naval ship — unproven — which reflects the bravery, the patriotism and the dedication of these airmen," he said. "Also the seamanship of the captain of that aircraft carrier to get the knots coming over the bow in order to get lift — huge gamble, huge payoff."