Standing proudly in front of a B-25 Mitchell on display for a recent airshow in the central Texas town of Burnet, retired Lt. Col. Richard Cole slowly walked up to the antique bomber and clutched one of its propeller blades.
The last surviving Doolittle Raider, who had just marked his 101st birthday a few days before, smiled as he reminisced in the shadow of the bomber — a link to his storied past.
A U.S. Army Air Force B-25B Mitchell medium bomber, one of sixteen involved in the mission, takes off from the flight deck of the USS Hornet for an air raid on the Japanese Home Islands on April 18, 1942. (U.S. Air Force Photo)
"When we got the B-25, it was a kick in the butt," he later said, adding that he first flew the B-18 Bolo out of flight school. "It was fast and very maneuverable, with a good, steady bombing platform. You could fly it all over."
Seventy-plus years ago, he co-piloted a similar bomber alongside then-Lt. Col. James Doolittle during a pivotal mission April 18, 1942, that helped turn the tide for the allies in the Pacific theater of World War II.
As the final member of the famed 80-man Army Air Forces unit, Cole was chosen to announce the name of the Air Force's newest bomber, the B-21 Raider, at the Air Force Association's Air, Space and Cyber Conference on Sept. 19 in Washington, D.C.
"I've never flown in any of the modern bombers so it's pretty hard to realize how all of the improvements have meant to aviation," he said at the Sept. 10 airshow. "All I can say is that the B-25 was like having a Ford Model T, (and now pilots are) getting into a Mustang."
U.S. Air Force Retired Lt. Col. Richard E. Cole, Co-Pilot to Jimmy Doolittle during the Doolittle Raid, smiles as he honors the U.S. flag during the singing of the national anthem at an airshow in Burnet, Texas. Lt. Col. Cole was honored by the community and guests as the only remaining military service member alive from the April 18, 1942 Doolittle Raid. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)
Nowadays, Cole has shifted his focus away from the twin-engine bomber to his tractor and lawnmower. He refuses to let his age stand in the way of his daily chores. So when not traveling for events, he tends to his acreage in Comfort, Texas, about an hour's drive northwest from San Antonio.
"People ask me if I'm getting any flying time and I say, 'Well, I'm getting a lot of single-engine time with the lawnmower," he said, chuckling.
To keep the memory of Doolittle and the rest of the Raiders alive, he helps sell his book, "Dick Cole's War," which documents not only the Doolittle Raid, but his service after that mission with the First Air Commandos in Burma. Proceeds from the book go into a scholarship fund in Doolittle's name for students in the aviation field.
Cahl estimates her father has put in hundreds of thousands of dollars from the sales of books and signed lithograph prints into the fund to honor Doolittle, who died in 1993.
"All the time when I was flying with Colonel Doolittle, I was in awe over the fact that I was sitting next to him," Cole said. "He put the word 'team' in the forefront of the English language."
Now the sole survivor, Cole wants no part being the poster child for the historic mission.
"You did the mission. You did what you were supposed to do," he said. "The people who were involved are all passing (away) and that's the way it ends.
"I didn't think any of the Raiders wanted to be singled out. We just wanted to be part of the big picture."