Taking off from the U.S.S. Hornet

Richard Cole, Doolittle Raider

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.

Doolittle and Cole with their fellow crew members
Doolittle and Cole (in front) with their fellow crew members

The mission, led by famed aviator James Doolittle, was launched a mere 4 months after the dreadful attack on Pearl Harbor.

Getting Ready

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.

B-25 bombers packed onto the deck of the U.S.S. Hornet
B-25 bombers packed onto the deck of the U.S.S. Hornet

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.

B-25 Bomber taking off from U.S.S. Hornet aircraft carrier
B-25 Bomber taking off from the Hornet

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.

The Doolittle Raiders in China
The Doolittle Raiders in China

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.

For their efforts, Doolittle would receive the Medal of Honor, while Dole received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

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.

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9 Responses to “Richard Cole, Doolittle Raider”

  1. Avatar

    Jim Rice

    We shall never again see men such as these. They truly were the greatest generation. Not because they fought a war, but because of how they could come together on every front and in every aspect of war and life truly be one. May God Bless them all.

  2. Avatar

    William Crouch


  3. Avatar

    C.R.Hickman SM 2

    I served aboard the USS Hornet, CVS 12, from 6-1956- 12-1959. The Hornet mentioned was later sunk in Battle of Solomon’s. The Navy kept it quiet and later commissioned the next “Essex” class carrier coming from New Port News. Stamped on the hull of the new arriving Hornet is the name of the Navy’s next carrier: Kearsarge. I was assigned to the Hornet, fresh out of boot camp when she was up in Bremerton Dry Dock receiving a multi dollar conversion with canted flight deck, hurricane bow. At that time we also converted her from an attack (CVA) carrier to a submarine anti wars fare carrier. (CVS). Most of our operations (ORI) training was in South China Sea. Although our time was spent during the “Cold War” the Russians were a real threat, often stalking us with their submarines. We had the best, we’ll trained men in the fleet of task force 77.5 Of course we had pictures of Jimmy Doolittle all over our ship.

  4. Avatar

    Phil Auten

    Heroes, one and all! I wish we could keep these old heroes with us to tell their stories to our new generations so they could understand exactly what was happening back then without all the political correctness and distortions that are added to stories like this.

    Phil in TX

  5. Avatar

    Terence E. Cowan

    These men inspired the entire nation. It is an honour to to have served with a true band of brothers no matter what your station or MOS. There was a much larger cast of characters than the flight crews. Some heroes are not recognized.

  6. Avatar

    Shawn ogline

    Thank you for sharing this story! Truly the greatest generation!

  7. Avatar

    Mark Ehlers

    All those who served have stories to tell. Some are more enthralling than others. This is one of them. A salute to them all…

  8. Avatar

    LTC Christopher M. Siedor USA (Ret.)

    Those who served in uniform during WW2 – (My father was a B-17 pilot for 50 missions with 99th Bomb Group {“The Diamondbacks”}) – were no different than those who served in Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Afghanistan and Iraq. The nature of war requires those serving to put their “lives on the line” to protect this Nation. Courage was profound and widespread in WW2. But that kind of frequent bravery, I saw in Vietnam as Dustoff Pilot and is still seen today by those who wear a uniform and who are in “harm’s way.” To think otherwise detracts from those who serve today. For they are the standard bearers of a history and legacy that makes the United States Armed Forces the most respected military of the world.

  9. Avatar

    Larry Treadway

    Yes me and my son which is from North Carolina we always like to read and watch programs about World War 1 & 2 we are very interested in these wars thank you Sportsman Guide