April 9, 2019 saw the passing of Richard Cole, the last living member of Doolittle’s Raiders.
Almost a full 77 years earlier, on April 18th 1942, 16 B-25 Bombers took off from the cramped deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet.
The mission, led by famed aviator James Doolittle, was launched a mere 4 months after the dreadful attack on Pearl Harbor.
Like the rest of the Doolittle Raiders, Cole volunteered for the risky bombing mission with little advanced knowledge. Indeed the crew only learned the rough parameters of the mission indirectly by the requirements of their training.
Already familiar with the B-25 Bomber, Cole was told he needed to reduce the normal 3,000 feet of takeoff distance to an impossible-seeming 500 feet.
Simultaneous to the Raider’s training, engineers elsewhere were taking the standard B-25 plane and trying to increase range as much as possible.
This included removing the complex bombsight and the lower defensive turret. And adding additional fuel tanks wherever space could be found, including in the bomb bay where the team would also have to find room for as much bomb payload as possible.
On April 1st, 1942, the pilots arrived in San Francisco to board the U.S.S. Hornet. The deck was already packed with 16 of the specially-modified B-25 bombers, with the carrier’s normal complement of Navy fighter planes stowed in the decks below.
Striking into Imperial Japan
A few days out to sea the pilots were finally given the full details of their mission.
Once the Hornet had reached a distance of 400 miles from the coastline of Imperial Japan, the bombers would launch, carry out their individual bombing plans, before finally landing at designated air fields within Nationalist-controlled China.
Things did not go well.
The seas were rough, making the job of taking off from the dangerously-cramped flight deck even more difficult.
And at a distance of 650 miles, well outside the original take-off area, the U.S.S. Hornet was spotted by Japanese forces. All 16 B-25 bombers were ordered to take off early to get ahead of any report of their arrival.
The first bomber, piloted by Doolittle and Cole, lumbered up into the air and away from the deck while the carrier thrashed wildly back and forth underneath them.
Behind them, thanks to luck and fierce training, the remaining 15 bombers all successfully launched, soaring up into the air before maneuvering and splitting off into the routes each were given to reach their chosen targets.
All bombers delivered their payloads, damaging military and industrial targets within 6 key cities: Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe and Osaka.
But the next challenge, safely landing at the designated landing sites, would prove impossible.
Due to the extra distance the bombers had been forced to travel, none of the planes had the needed fuel. Instead, each pilot had to make alterate plans based on their location.
One plane landed in Russia. The others made it to China. All ran out of fuel, forcing the crews to either conduct a crash landing or bail out.
Cole, along with Doolittle, bailed out, jumping from their B-25 and parachuting into unknown territory.
Of the 80 original crew members, 69 made it safely back home. 3 were killed in action, while 8 were captured and were either executed or imprisoned.
While Doolittle initially considered the mission a failure due to the destruction of the bombers, the Raiders were welcomed home as heroes.
They had bombed the mainland of Japan, proving to the American people that the military planners behind Pearl Harbor were not untouchable.
In the following months of the Pacific War, Japan would commit more and more of its fleet to defense, reducing the number of ships that could challenge American advancement.
Discovery of the U.S.S. Hornet
The carrier which had launched the Doolittle Raid, the U.S.S. Hornet, managed to evade retaliation from the Japanese navy and survived the action unharmed.
It would go on to participate in a number of important engagements in the Pacific War, most notably the Battle of Midway.
But the Hornet would not survive to the end, instead finally succumbing to a hail of armor-piercing bombs near the Solomon Islands.
The final resting place of the U.S.S. Hornet was uncertain until January of 2019, when it was spotted by the crew of the research vessel Petrel during a search of the ocean floor.
Richard Cole, at the age of 103, would be the only member of the raiding crew who would live to see the discovery.