PEARL HARBOR ANNIVERSARY
Revenge is a dish best served cold.
For months after the Dec. 7, 1941, surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the American military clamored for some way, any way, to strike back at the seemingly unstoppable Japanese war machine. Imperial forces had scored victory after victory in the Pacific, and there was seemingly little the United States could do.
It’s doubtful Lt. Richard Cole had that old saying on his mind in April 1942, but to the airmen following him and Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, it was an appropriate sentiment.
Doolittle, 600 miles off the Japanese coast and at the controls of a B-25 Mitchell bomber, with Cole as copilot, was about to remind the warlords they weren’t invincible.
Broomsticks for tail guns
Although the assault on Pearl Harbor resulted in more than 3,500 casualties and the loss of 17 ships, including eight battleships, their forces struck while the Navy’s aircraft carrier fleet was at sea.
About a month after the attack Navy Adm. Francis Low proposed using one of those carriers, USS Hornet, to launch a raid on the Japanese mainland.
It was an unprecedented idea. No one ever had flown land-based aircraft from a Navy carrier. Because the planes could not return and land, everyone knew it would be a one-way mission.
But no one at the time considered it a suicide operation, author Jim Scott, a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his book, “Target Tokyo,” said in an email.
“There was, of course, a plan for these bombers to land on primitive runways in China,” Scott said. “We now know how ill-prepared the Chinese airfields were to receive the bombers, but on paper at the time, the mission appeared feasible, dangerous certainly, but survivable.”
To accomplish the operation, Doolittle chose the five-man B-25 Mitchell, a newly-developed twin-engine bomber which first flew only 18 months before and which had yet to see combat. Doolittle picked the Mitchell because its small size meant that with skilled pilots at the controls it could conceivably take off from a moving ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and successfully deliver its deadly cargo to the Japanese islands.
To save weight and increase its range, each aircraft was stripped of almost all armament, equipped with extra fuel tanks and its bomb load reduced by about 1,000 pounds.
To fool any pursuing Japanese aircraft, the Mitchell’s twin rear guns were replaced with painted broomsticks.
Larry Kelley, founder and executive director of the Delaware Aviation Foundation, owns one of the world’s few airworthy B-25s.
Piloting a B-25 is not much different than sitting behind the controls of its contemporaries, the B-17 Flying Fortress or B-24 Liberator, Kelley said.
“It is not a hard airplane to fly,” he said. “You literally have to manhandle the aircraft, but once you learn it, it’s a relatively easy aircraft to fly.”
But it does require some elbow grease to manage a smooth flight, Kelley said.
“It’s a heavy airplane and there are no boosted controls, no hydraulics, it’s all cables and bell cranks,” he said.
Kelley bases his Mitchell, dubbed “Panchito,” at the Sussex County airport in Georgetown and it makes regular appearances at air shows and special events.
A pharmacist by trade, Kelley has been flying for more than 50 years and considers the Mitchell one of his favorites. Although his plane never saw action, it was built as a fully combat-ready aircraft. It was used for training until 1958, when it was sold and turned first into a fire bomber and then a mosquito-sprayer.
After sitting for years in a museum, it was restored. One of the owners at the time had a friend and pastor who had been a gunner on the original Panchito. The Mitchell was named in honor of the original plane.
An unexpected complication
Doolittle had a long and distinguished career as both a military and civilian aviator before he was chosen to lead the highly classified raid, and Cole was well aware of Doolittle’s reputation.
“When we met Col. Doolittle, I knew his background and generally from the newspaper articles what kind of a man he was,” Cole said. “I knew all about his flying escapades and the different types of airplanes he flew.”
Doolittle selected only those who volunteered for what was advertised as a “secret, dangerous mission,” and put the men through weeks of training which included takeoffs from a simulated carrier deck.
With so little time for preparation, Doolittle considered his crews only minimally trained for what they were called upon to do. None of the volunteers knew their true destination until the planes were loaded aboard the Hornet and it steamed into the western Pacific.
The plan was to launch the aircraft about 400 miles from the Japanese coast and drop incendiary and explosive bombs over Tokyo and other targets. The planes were to head to airfields in parts of China free from Japanese control.
Things did not go as planned.
On April 18, 1942, still about 600 miles from Japan, the Hornet and its task force was spotted by a Japanese patrol boat. Although the boat was destroyed, Doolittle feared it had given the Hornet’s position to the Japanese navy. After the war, it was learned a garbled message had been sent and the boat was sunk before a clearer message could be transmitted.
Despite knowing his men would have to ditch their aircraft in occupied territory, Doolittle launched the raid. With Cole by his side, his was the first Mitchell to leave the Hornet, taking off in a squall with Doolittle timing the takeoff so the carrier’s bow was pointed up when he left the flight deck.
No small talk
Despite the importance of the mission, Cole said there was very little small talk with Doolittle during the inbound flight.
“This was a time when second lieutenants were to be seen and not heard,” he said. “Col. Doolittle was not a chatty man. He didn’t talk just to be talking, so the cockpit was very quiet, just questions and trying to maintain contact [with other aircraft] without speaking.
“Once we got off the carrier, it was strictly manhandling the airplane,” Cole said. The automatic pilot and bombsight had been removed to save weight, he said.
Despite the lack of chatter, he had a lot of things going through his mind, Cole said.
“I was thinking of all sorts of horrible things happening to me besides being scared. But I finally settled down to a ‘so far, so good’ basis and let her go that way,” he said.
The plane arrived above the Japanese capital around 12:30 p.m. local time. There was little resistance during the bomb run and Cole got a good look at the countryside below.
“Our target was in the northwest part of Tokyo because the original plan was to be flown at night,” he said. “But having to arrive over Japan at high noon, it was very picturesque, beautiful countryside. People were swimming and working on boats, playing baseball. That part of it was very nice.”
Because they were carrying incendiary bombs, “Our mission was to set Tokyo on fire,” he said. Being first on the scene, the fires would provide good targeting for subsequent aircraft, he said.
Casualties were few
After dropping their bombs, Doolittle, Cole and the rest of the crew continued on until they ran out of fuel and bailed out over Tianmushun mountain in eastern China. The plane crashed nearby, but the entire crew was picked up and escorted to safety.
Fourteen of the remaining 15 aircraft also crash-landed in China when their tanks went dry; one diverted to Vladivostok in Russia where its crew was interned for more than a year. It was the only Mitchell to survive the raid intact.
Three of the 80 men died of injuries from ditching, and four were captured and held as prisoners of war. Of those, three were tried and executed by the Japanese military.
Despite all of the bombers making their targets, Doolittle considered the mission a failure because every aircraft had been lost. He returned to the United States, thinking he would be court-martialed.
“We felt pretty good about the mission because we did exactly what they wanted us to do, and came out of it unscathed,” Cole said of his crewmates. “We couldn’t understand why he felt that way. He worried more about losing the 16 airplanes and the crews than he did about himself.”
The American public went wild following news of the successful raid. Although it was little more than a pinprick to the Japanese military machine, it proved the enemy was not unbeatable and was a huge morale boost. In response, the Japanese redeployed some of their forces, unknowingly weakening defenses, a decision that proved disastrous only two months later with an American victory during the Battle of Midway.
A promotion for Doolittle
Doolittle was feted upon his return to the United States, being promoted directly from lieutenant colonel to brigadier general. President Franklin D. Roosevelt personally presented him the Medal of Honor, while all of the Raiders were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Those who were injured or killed also received the Purple Heart Medal.
Except for an eight-month interregnum, Cole remained in the Air Force, retiring as a colonel in 1962, and now lives outside San Antonio. He celebrated his 102nd birthday in September and is the last surviving member of what now are known as Doolittle’s Raiders.
“Without blowing my own horn, I felt good that I was able to do my job and that the rest of the guys were able to do their jobs in a successful, straightforward manner,” he said. That’s a good feeling, Cole added.
Cole stayed in touch over the years with several fellow Raiders, especially Lt. James “Herb” Macia Jr. They reunited occasionally for hunting and fishing trips and social outings. Macia was the last Raider to retire from active duty, leaving the Air Force in 1973 as a colonel. He died in 2009, having lived the last seven years of his life in Rehoboth Beach.
Cole only saw Doolittle occasionally, particularly during annual reunions, but he reserves his highest praise for the man he describes as “a pack of dynamite.”
“I don’t think there are enough descriptive words in the dictionary to describe the type of man he was,” Cole said. “He was a man of all seasons.”