The name Richard E. Cole is one that comes with a legacy of service, sacrifice, and bravery.
It is a name that will forever be cemented in Air Commando and Hurlburt history after a building renaming and dedication ceremony at the home of the nation’s Air Commandos last week.
In front of Air Commandos, past and present, and his daughter Ms. Cindy Chal, Retired Lt. Col. Richard E. Cole and Lt. Col. Allison Black, the commander of the 319th Special Operations Squadron, unveiled the new name for the 319th SOS building which now reflects Richard E. Cole Building. Cole is the last surviving Doolittle Raider whose Air Force roots date back to the origination of the 319th SOS.
“Eleven days from now, it will be 75 years to the day, that then 26-year-old Lieutenant Cole climbed into the airplane to get after the Raid on Tokyo, Special Mission number 1,” Black said. “Sir, you inspired all of us here today. I know you’ve said in the past that you are not a hero, you are not brave, that we were just guys doing our job. That epitomizes the humble, incredible, approachable nature of who you are, and what makes all of you as Air Commandos very special.”
In early 1942, Cole volunteered for Special Mission Number 1, which trained at Eglin Air Field, and on April 18, 1942, he served as then-Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle’s co-pilot during the Raid on Tokyo.
Cole became Doolittle’s co-pilot by chance while training at Eglin. The pilot who Cole was training with fell ill, and the co-pilot chosen to fly with Doolittle was also unable to fly.
“Everyone wanted to go on that mission,” he said. “They all went to the [operations] officer and explained the situation. It ended up that Doolittle took [the seat of the pilot who fell ill] because we already had the crew.”
The Doolittle Raid was an air raid where 16, U.S. B-25 bombers launched from the USS Hornet 650 miles east of Japan to attack the Japanese mainland. The raid, while it caused only minor damage, let the Japanese know America had just begun to fight. Doolittle, Cole and the crew bailed out into the dark, storm-blowing night. As Cole parachuted to safety, his parachute got stuck in a pine tree, leaving him suspended 12 feet above the ground. After cutting himself loose, he walked all day to find a Chinese village, where he was picked up by Chinese troops.
Subsequently, Cole continued serving in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater until June 1943. He then volunteered for Project 9, which was the birth of the 1st Air Commando Group.
In a July 2016 interview with Air Force Television, Cole said back then he didn’t know what it meant to be an Air Commando, but he would soon understand.
“I was flying The Hump, and I got the opportunity to know a [Lt. Col. John] Alison who was later one of the commanders when they decided they were going to form commando units…and they were looking for people who had been flying in the China-Burma-[India] area,” he said. “Since I had done that, Alison gave me a call and told me what I would be doing. I got back with him, and it wasn’t long until I learned what was happening.”
After his conversation with Alison, Cole volunteered for and served as an original Air Commando in the Transport Section of Project 9, 5318th Provisional Air Unit, of the 1st Air Commando Group in the CBI Theater. The Transport Section later became the 319th Troop Carrier Squadron, which was the antecedent for the 319th SOS.
“Having your name on our building symbolizes a few things,” Black said. “It is going to allow the incredible men and women of the 319th SOS, every day, rain or shine, to think of what you all sacrificed. Not only the 319th SOS Slayers, but every Air Commando and every joint partner who walks this path up to these doors will have the chance to reflect on the history that you created. You paved the way for how we conduct business.”
Cole retired from active duty with a list of accomplishments and awards that includes: the Distinguished Flying Cross with two oak leaf clusters, the Bronze Star medal, the Air Force Commendation medal, the Chinese Army, Navy, Air Corps medal, Class A, 1st Grade. On May 23, 2014, President Barrack H. Obama issued the Congressional Gold Medal to Cole along with three other living Doolittle Raiders at the White House.
Cole provided 319th SOS Air Commandos with parting advice, “If you decide this is what you want to do, get yourself educated, keep abreast of knowledge the best you can and press on.”