And Then There Were None
On June 27th, 2016, Lt. Col (Ret) Richard Cole stood graveside as Staff Sgt. David J. Thatcher was laid to rest in Montana. From that moment until his death on April 9th, 2019 at the age of 103, he had carried a lonely burden; he was the last one. The Doolittle Raiders, as they preferred to be called, had long since planned for there being only one, and then none of them.
Every year since 1959, a custom set of 80 goblets representing each member of the Doolittle Raiders was presented with a reading of the names and a toast. The living participated, the dead had their names read and their goblets turned over. Each goblet had a man’s name on it twice, inscribed so that the name was readable regardless of disposition. Each year the list was read, and the number dwindled from the 61 who had survived the war out of the 80 Raiders. In 2013 the 1896 Hennessy VS cognac (Doolittle’s birth year) meant to be shared among the last two survivors was opened for the ‘final toast’ by Cole. Though three Raiders remained, they decided it best not to chance it another year, and nobody was going to quibble. As both the oldest living and ranking Raider, it had long since fallen to Cole to give the toast: “Gentlemen, I propose a toast to those we lost on the mission and those who have passed away since. Thank you very much and may they rest in peace.”
After Thatcher’s death in 2016, and coinciding with the 75th anniversary of that first offensive strike against Japan during WW2, Dick Cole raised his goblet, the only goblet in a living Raiders hand, to toast the 79. He then turned over Thatcher’s goblet, and knew that inside the lined storage case that he himself had designed only his remained upright.
Now his must be turned.
When Dick Cole made those last few toasts, it was at the US Air Force Museum on the grounds of Wright-Patterson AFB, Dayton, Ohio. It is where the Raiders goblets are permanently displayed, where the final toast occurred among the last three men, and where Cole himself had frequently visited, lectured, and represented this most special of fraternities. It was not far from where he had grown up. A young Dick Cole had rushed to the local air field to see daredevil pilots like Jimmy Doolittle in the skies that only a few years before the Wright Brothers had looked up to, determined to find a way up there. Little did he know he would be Doolittle’s co-pilot years later in the most daring of the flying legend’s exploits.
After the raid, and having extracted himself from the pine tree he parachuted into when his aircraft ran out of fuel over China, Cole made his way to friendly Chinese forces. At the time, he, Doolittle, and the other survivors feared the mission had been a failure as all the aircraft were lost (one landed in Soviet controlled territory and was interred), and they knew at least some of the men had been captured. It wasn’t till after the war they learned that 3 men were killed in action, including two who drowned upon ditching in the sea, and eight men were captured by the Japanese. Three(1st Lt. Dean E. Hallmark, 1st Lt. William G. Farrow, Cpl. Harold A. Spatz) were executed by the Japanese, and another (1st Lt. Robert J. Meder) died from maltreatment in captivity. The other four somehow survived.
They were also wrong about failing. The mission, while not being very damaging in terms of actual bombing efficiency, was a huge victory to American morale. Japan could be hit, and a public desperate for some good news in the dark early days of the Pacific campaign had hope. Of the 69 Raiders who returned from the Tokyo raid, 5 were killed in other actions during the war, several others lost in air crashes, but of those who remained all but the two who separated due to sustained injuries would serve till the end of the war. They gathered for the first time in 1946, fulfilling Doolittle’s promise to throw them all “a party” after the war. They met every year that followed until 2013.
But there will be one last reunion of sorts. When Richard Cole is buried in the hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery, he will be among not only the mighty company of American heroes laid to rest there, including several other Raiders, but also Hallmark, Farrow, and Meder who died at the vengeful hands of the Japanese they had struck at all those years ago. The last Raider who lived so long a life will forever lay in honor near those Raiders who died first. The man who had watched airplanes as a kid in the Wright Brother’s hometown, joined the pre-war Army Air Corps because “it was a good job,” been in the lead aircraft in America’s first strike on Japan, and carried the honor and dignity of those heroes every day since, will finally be at rest in his country’s most sacred place.
“We were just doing our job, part of the big picture, and happy that what we did was helpful,” he answered an interviewer about whether or not the Doolittle Raiders felt like heroes.
They were. Now it is our job to remember them, for they have passed into a history that they left an indelible mark on. Someone in Dayton will carefully open the display case and turn over one last goblet, all 80 forever now uniform for generations to see and honor. The name on it inscribed twice, so it can be read in either disposition.
Lt Col Richard “Dick” Cole. The last Doolittle Raider.