Meeting a Doolittle Raider, Richard Cole

Teaching history at the Air Force Academy, I got to geek out on all kinds of historical stuff--conferences, research, self-study--but some of the coolest history nerd experiences came from the folks our department brought in to speak to the cadets. Meeting these airpower greats was always a little otherworldly. Listening to John Warden describe how his team planned the air component of Desert Storm (and what has become the gold standard of air war planning), or having dinner with Jeremy Black, one of the world's most preeminent airpower historians, were fantastic experiences, but there was one event greater than any other: taking part in the annual (and final) Doolittle Raiders Reunion.

What the Doolittle Raiders did in 1942 was nothing short of amazing...and a little crazy. Many Americans will remember the end of the movie Pearl Harbor, which did a passable job depicting the event, even if it did nothing to salvage the movie. In the first half of 1942 the U.S. and its allies in the Pacific were losing, and the Japanese were running roughshod all the way to Australia, Alaska, and of course, Hawaii. The 80 men who volunteered for this mission were ready to do anything that would strike back at the Japanese in a meaningful (if tactically insignificant) way. This they did, in spades. The untouchable island was suddenly reachable, and the message was clear: we are coming for you, and we will win. These eighty men struck this first blow, and the reunions, for 75 years, are an ongoing testament to their daring, service, and sacrifice.

Last April was the last time they would hold the event. All but Dick Cole had flown off into the sunset, and 2017 was going to be the last "reunion," even if there wasn't anyone left to reunite. Usually the coordination for the Air Force Academy contingent goes to the most junior pilot in the Department, and last year, I was him. From the start it was a memorable experience.

The cadets are the face of this operation, and we picked our best. We selected a group who would be attending pilot or navigator training after graduation and were among the sharpest history majors we had. In short, these young people would inspire confidence in the future of the Air Force in even the most casual observer.

The events at the reunions include both public and private ceremonies, and as officiants, we were invited to the most private of them all, the goblet turn-over ceremony. In it, the remaining Raiders turn over the goblets of those who departed in the preceding year, and at this particular ceremony, with but one Raider left, it was a small affair: Lt Col Cole, his and SSgt Thatcher's family and closest friends, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force General David Goldfein, and us. It took all of 15 minutes for some words to be spoken, for Lt Col Cole to give his toast and have his 1896 cognac, and to turn over the cup of SSgt David Thatcher, who died June 22, 2016. It was, hands down, one of the most moving experiences in my life.

The public events included taking turns guarding the goblet case at the Air Force Museum and the Memorial Service. It was a warbird lover's dream: about a half-dozen B-25s on static display beforehand, brought to town by some dedicated Commemorative Air Force volunteers. The memorial featured a missing-man formation of B-25s, forever proving that we heavy guys can commemorate our own, too. I can only imagine what joy Dick Cole felt seeing those planes that were the origin of one of his life's seminal moments flying overhead.

And then, there was the afterparty. For dozens of the Raiders' families, this has been a big part of their lives, their stories blended together by these annual events. Therefore, the reception at the local Holiday Inn had an air of a family reunion, with a great-grandfather of sorts at the center. There was food, drinks-a-plenty and even an fundraiser auction of some vintage Doolittle Raiders' swag.

Richard Cole: an aviation great. I am honored to have met him, and to have taken part in this amazing event.


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