Remembering World War II Pilot Dick Cole NPR's Scott Simon talks to author Laura Hillenbrand about the life of World War II pilot Dick Cole, the last surviving member of the Doolittle Raid. He died this week at age 103.
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Remembering World War II Pilot Dick Cole

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Remembering World War II Pilot Dick Cole

Remembering World War II Pilot Dick Cole

Remembering World War II Pilot Dick Cole

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NPR's Scott Simon talks to author Laura Hillenbrand about the life of World War II pilot Dick Cole, the last surviving member of the Doolittle Raid. He died this week at age 103.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A remembrance now of the last of Doolittle's Raiders (ph). Lieutenant Colonel Dick Cole died this week. He was 103 years old. He was Jimmy Doolittle's co-pilot April of 1942 at the controls of one of the 16 B-25 bombers that took off from the aircraft carrier Hornet on what many regarded as a suicide mission - the first counterattack against the Japanese mainland after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.

Laura Hillenbrand, the author of "Seabiscuit" and "Unbroken," knew Dick Cole. She wanted to write a book about him. Welcome back to our program, Laura.

LAURA HILLENBRAND: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: I guess we need to remind ourselves in this day and age, why was this mission particularly dangerous?

HILLENBRAND: The United States was really knocked back by Pearl Harbor. And after that, the Japanese were just on a winning streak. And the United States could do nothing about it because they had no land base from which to launch bombers and go after Japan.

And they had what I think is kind of an insane idea, which is they were going to take 16 B-25s, which are medium-sized bombers. They were going to hoist them onto the carrier Hornet, sail it out off the Japanese coast and launch them. And these planes normally took several thousand feet of runway to take off. There's only about 500 feet on the Hornet. And they modified the planes and launched these planes.

SIMON: And they had to launch - what? - 200 miles prematurely?

HILLENBRAND: They did. They had a plan that was going to take the planes over Japan, bomb Japan and then head on to friendly bases in China. And Japanese boats spotted their task force way early. They had to launch right at that moment. And they did. And the men knew they did not have enough fuel to make it. They knew they were very likely to die, very likely to ditch. And everyone had the opportunity to back out. Not a single man did. They all went.

SIMON: So what did happen to Lieutenant Colonel Dick Cole and his aircraft?

HILLENBRAND: They flew over Japan, and they looked down. Cole remembered seeing people waving up and smiling at them as they flew over. They thought they were friendly planes. The Japanese thought there was no way enemy planes could reach them, especially big bombers like that. They had some flak, but they were not hit badly.

They headed out over the China Sea, and they started to run out of fuel. And a tail wind caught them and carried them over the Chinese coast. And then their fuel ran out in the darkness in a wild thunderstorm over the mountains of China. And Cole had to jump out of the plane. He had never even practiced parachuting. He'd had no training at all. And he just dove out of the plane headfirst.

He walked for a day, and he found a building with a nationalist Chinese flag hanging over it. And a soldier was there - a Chinese soldier - and invited him in. And the man took him to a dark room, and there was Jimmy Doolittle.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh.

HILLENBRAND: Yeah - amazing moment. And from then, it was a race to get out of where they were because the Japanese were hunting them.

SIMON: Now, we must note the actual damage inflicted on Japan was limited. Why was the mission considered such a success?

HILLENBRAND: The Japanese were so confident that they were spreading out over the globe and not concentrating their forces. And when this raid happened, that terrified them. And they contracted their forces. And they decided to take aim for Midway Atoll, which, if they could claim it, would give them a land base, making America more vulnerable and making themselves safer.

And essentially, the raid lured them into that. We had the Battle of Midway. The United States won it triumphantly. And it turned the course of the war. So these guys - these 80 men on 16 planes - turned the course of history with that little raid.

SIMON: Did Dick Cole have a happy life after the war?

HILLENBRAND: He did. He was a - kind of an institution at the Doolittle Raider reunions that were held every year. And they had a tradition there. The city of Tucson had made up 80 silver goblets inscribed with the names of the 80 men from the raid. And the names were written on one side right-side up and another side upside down.

And each year, the men would privately gather and drink brandy in a toast to whoever had passed away the previous year. And then that man's goblet would be turned upside down. And there was one goblet that was still upright. And it actually still is now. But there's going to be a ceremony to turn over the very last one because they're all gone now.

SIMON: Laura Hillenbrand talking about Lieutenant Colonel Dick Cole. Thanks so much, Laura.

HILLENBRAND: Thank you so much.

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