When you're talking famous flyboys, right at the top of the check list is James Harold "Jimmy" Doolittle, a fellow who tempted fate far too many times. Other notable aviators, like the "Red Baron," Manfred von Richthofen, or American ace Eddie Rickenbacker, or test pilot Chuck Yeager, became known for brief, shining exploits, but Doolittle's feats are a résumé of aerial accomplishment that has never been equaled.
He earned his wings during the Great War and began his military career flying the border patrol. A skilled natural pilot with a canny sense of engineering, Doolittle soon began pushing the envelope. Doolittle first entered the public consciousness with pioneering flights for the Army, such as becoming the first person to fly across the United States in one day -- Florida to California in 14 hours! -- and then became an aerial daredevil, flying souped-up race planes. He was the only pilot to survive flying the dangerous Gee Bee racer. The meticulous Doolittle also earned graduate degrees in aeronautics and worked for Shell Oil as an aviation representative.
Doolittle was called back into uniform when war erupted for the United States at Pearl Harbor.
"If we should have to fight, we should be prepared to do so from the neck up instead of from the neck down," said Doolittle at the time.
His first scheme, typically, not only strained the limits of available aviation technology, it was a masterstroke of public relations, boosting morale in the dark days of 1942. He put Army bombers on a Navy aircraft carrier and struck at the heart of the Japanese Empire. Although the "Doolittle Raid" caused little actual damage, it is likely the single most effective airstrike in history, causing Japan to rethink its offensive strategy and giving the Allies a thrilling propaganda boost.
The Doolittle Raid became a touchstone of popular culture, featured in "Thirty Seconds over Tokyo" and other books and films.
Doolittle was awarded the Medal of Honor and commanded American air forces in North Africa, Europe and the Pacific, a champion of strategic "pickle barrel" bombing that minimized civilian casualties. Postwar, he continued working for Shell and advised corporations and governments on aviation matters. He died in 1993.
Even great pilots need a co-pilot, and while training for the raid, Doolittle chose Dick Cole and his crew. Already a veteran light-bomber pilot with hundreds of hours on coastal patrols, Cole sat in the lead B-25's right seat for the raid. Cole stayed in the Far East after the mission, flying "the Hump" in military transports bringing aid to China. After retiring from the Air Force, Cole became active with the surviving Doolittle Raiders. The veterans meet regularly, although every year there are fewer of them. When there are only two left, they intend to crack open a bottle of cognac -- vintage 1896, the year Doolittle was born -- and toast to aviators who have gone west before them.
U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO BY SENIOR AIRMAN BRIAN FERGUSON
Dick Cole holds a bust of pilot Jimmy Doolittle.
Pilot Dick Cole was born to fly historic Doolittle Raid
Dayton, Ohio, was not only home base for the Wright Brothers, it also hosted the Army Air Corps' McCook Field, where the latest in aviation technology was tested. For a kid who grew up next door in the '20s, the panorama of airplanes in their element was thrilling and memorable.
"DeHavillands!" recalls Dick Cole. "Curtiss Hawks! Jennies and Tommy Morse racers! The big Barling Bomber -- what a sight that was."
Cole became an aviation enthusiast, collecting scrapbooks of clippings and flying balsa and paper models. He signed up for flight school in college, while working as a trainee machinist for inventor Bill Lear, who gave him time off to complete his training.
Aviation was in Dick Cole's future. What he didn't know was that he'd get a front-row seat for one of the greatest flying stunts of the 20th century. Cole was Col. Jimmy Doolittle's co-pilot in the famous "Doolittle Raid" of 1942, when 16 Army B-25 bombers staggered off of the deck of a pitching aircraft carrier to strike at the heart of the Japanese empire. At the time, the circumstances were so secret that when President Roosevelt was asked how the bombers could possibly have gotten so close to Japan, he said they had taken off from Shangri-La.
Cole, as well Doolittle's granddaughter and biographer Jonna Doolittle Hoppes, will be giving a presentation and book signing at the Pacific Aviation Museum on Dec. 7, and signing books at lunchtime Dec. 8 and 9.
"I probably did see Doolittle fly before that, because I attended the National Air Races in Cleveland whenever I could," said Cole, 91, reached at his ranch in Comfort, Texas. "When I enlisted in the Army, I was sent to Randolph and Kelly Fields for training. It made no difference to me what I trained in. I just wanted to fly."
PACIFIC AVIATION MUSEUM
An overhead shot of the B-25 is shown at left. James Doolittle's granddaughter and biographer Jonna Doolittle Hoppes will signcopies of her book, shown far left, at the Pacific Aviation Museum Dec. 8 and 9.
The Air Corps decided Cole was best suited for twin-engined medium bombers, and after graduating in July, 1941, was posted to Pendleton, Ore., flying B-18s and B-23s on coastal patrols. He began to train on the new B-25 Mitchell bomber as well. "I liked it. It was good, stable and fast. When war was declared on Dec. 7, we started carrying live bombs."
The danger from enemy submarines was more critical on the East Coast, and in Feb. 1942, Cole's squadron was transferred to Columbia, South Carolina. "We were living in tents because the base wasn't finished. I saw a note on the bulletin board that the Air Corps was looking for B-25 pilots for a special mission, and I put my name down."
Cole, his pilot and crew were all tapped and secretly moved to a closely guarded airfield in Florida. "At Eglin Field we practiced short-field takeoffs and low-level navigation and bombing," said Cole. "We didn't know why. But then our pilot became ill and got aced out of the program. They asked us in the crew if we wanted to continue and we said sure. The commander said he'd hook us up with the 'old man.'"
U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO BY SENIOR AIRMAN BRIAN FERGUSON
Crew No. 1 (Plane #40-2344, target Tokyo) left to right: SSgt. Fred A. Braemer, bombardier; Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, pilot; Lt. Henry A. Potter, navigator; Lt. Richard E. Cole, copilot; SSgt. Paul J. Leonard, flight engineer/gunner.
The old man turned out to be Jimmy Doolittle himself. The legendary pilot had dreamed up the daring scheme of placing lumbering Army bombers on a Navy carrier, and, as luck would have it, only the B-25 was suitable.
The bombers were loaded aboard the USS Hornet and the small strike force headed across the Pacific. All excess weight was stripped from the planes -- including gun turrets -- and extra fuel tanks loaded. When a Japanese picket ship spotted the convoy, however, the "raiders" were forced to take off early, hundreds of miles short, in seas so rough that waves dampened the carrier deck. None of the pilots, including Doolittle, had ever actually taken off from a carrier before. "Luckily, we had a good stiff headwind," said Cole. "Takeoff was the easiest part."
There was no formation of bombers. There wasn't time or fuel. "The Number Two plane was a little faster than us and caught up. He was off our wing until we got to Japan, when we were all separated."
After dropping its eggs on Tokyo, Doolittle's bomber headed for China. "When the red fuel light came on, we bailed out. I was lucky and came down in a tree that broke my fall," said Cole. "It was hilly, mountainous country. The Chinese helped us get back together. Doolittle thought that the raid was a failure and he was a candidate for Leavenworth."
Instead, Doolittle was decorated and promoted. Cole remained in China -- "about 20 of us never received orders to go elsewhere" -- and flew supply missions over the Himalayas in C-47s and C-87s, and towed gliders when the 1st Air Commando Group invaded Burma. After the war, Cole became an acceptance test pilot for the Air Force and flew cargo missions in Korea. He retired in 1967, and he and wife Martha took over a citrus farm.
"I've had several chances to fly B-25s in the years since, and I always take them. It's a great old plane and fun to fly," said Cole. "As far as sitting at Jimmy Doolittle's right hand in the B-25 cockpit -- hey, he didn't nitpick, and he gave me lots of stick time. Can't ask for any more than that."