A 101-year-old surviving member of the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders will speak at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 7 at the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City. The date is the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” Cole and Dennis Okerstrom, Park University professor, will discuss “Before 9/11, there was a 12/7: Reflections of Doolittle Raider Dick Cole on World War II.”
The event is free; however, reservations are required at www.park.edu/cole. Due to the great interest in the Dec. 7 event, registration is full. However, Park University will host an abbreviated program of the event Tuesday Dec. 6 from 3 to -4 p.m. in Graham Tyler Memorial Chapel on the University’s Parkville Campus. Reservations are not required but seating is first come, first served.
Cole served as co-pilot to Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle in the first B-25 to take off from the USS Hornet on April 18, 1942, in the U.S. air raid on Tokyo. Doolittle and Cole piloted the first of 16 bombers to launch that morning, “in the middle of a pretty fierce storm,” Okerstrom said.
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“There were 80 men who took part in this raid on Tokyo four months after Pearl Harbor. He is the last of them,” said Okerstrom, who has authored “Dick Cole’s War: Doolittle Raider, Hump Pilot, Air Comando.”
While the raid on Tokyo resulted in relatively minor damage to the city, it is credited by historians as a critical factor in the Japanese defeat at the Battle of Midway, which is often cited as the turning point in the Pacific war.
“In the end, this totally demoralized the Japanese people. It raised the morale in the U.S. almost beyond what you could imagine,” Okerstrom said.
After bombing Tokyo the raiders headed for the coast of China, not sure if they would have the fuel to make it to land.
“A couple of the crews were captured, several of the men were executed, some were killed in crash landings,” Okerstrom said.
For those who made it, it wasn’t end of the war; they all went on to serve for the rest of the war.
“But they were the first shot. They were the first strike. They were the biggest heroes of the war,” he said.
Cole and all of the members of Doolittle Raiders were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in May 2014 “for outstanding heroism, valor, skill and service to the United States in conducting their bombings of Tokyo.”
Cole was later part of the Ferrying Command, flying the Hump of the Himalayas, “delivering supplies to the Chinese to make sure they stayed in the war.”
He also served in the First Air Commandos, “A top secret group that invaded Japanese-held Burma by night on gliders,” Okerstrom said.
Cole, who lives in southern Texas, had turned down many offers to write his story.
“He said ‘No, absolutely not, I’m not a hero. If you want to write about a hero, write about Jimmy Doolittle.’ He insisted he wasn’t going to have a book written on him,” Okerstrom said.
While working on “Project 9: The Birth of the Air Commandos in World War II” Okerstrom met Cole.
At the encouragement of Cole’s daughter, Okerstrom asked Cole for permission to write his story.
He told the aging pilot: “I know you’re not a hero, I know you were just doing your job. I know you were not a hero but you sure served with a lot of kids who were. But they didn’t come home, and so if you don’t tell their story for them, whose going to?”
So Cole finally agreed to be interviewed for a book on his career as a pilot.
Okerstrom spent a week at Cole’s home interviewing him and on the last day, Cole brought out a couple of big scrapbooks. One was his boyhood scrapbook with newspaper clippings showing that he had saved of Jimmy Doolittle and others. The other scrapbook had been compiled by Cole’s parents, and it had every letter Cole had written during the war.
Excerpts from those letters are in the book, and will be shared during the program Dec. 7 by uniformed military students from Park University.
“It spices it up for people to hear from him across seven decades,” said Okerstrom.
A reception is planned prior to the event at 6 p.m. Dec. 7, followed by the discussion at 6:30 p.m.
The National World War 1 Museum and Memorial is at 2 Memorial Drive, Kansas City.