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Honoring a legend

Five people in front of a B-25 Mitchell bomber.

Second Lt. Henry A. Potter, Lt. Col. James Harold Doolittle, Staff Sgt. Fred Anthony Braemer, 2nd Lt. Richard E. Cole and Staff Sgt. Paul John Leonard stand in front of a B-25 Mitchell bomber. (Air Force photo courtesy of doolittleraider.com)

1st Special Operations Wing leadership presenting plaque to WW II veteran.

Col. Michael Conley, left, 1st Special Operations Wing commander, and Chief Master Sgt. William Adams, 1st SOW command chief, presents a token of appreciation to retired Lt. Col. Richard Cole, during a veteran discussion panel at Hurlburt Field, Fla., March 5, 2019. The breakfast was one of several events held to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Operation Thursday. Operation Thursday was an unorthodox operation in which the first Air Commandos worked alongside British “Chindits” to insert thousands of troops behind enemy lines during World War II. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Kentavist Brackin)

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. --

Retired Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” Cole, the last surviving member of the Doolittle Raid and an original Air Commando, passed away at the age of 103, April 9.

Cole made a lasting impact on Air Force Special Operations Command, Hurlburt Field, Florida.

“He was an Air Commando that understood the responsibility of freedom,” said Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, AFSOC commander. “He was, in every sense of the word, a hero.”

Cole enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in November of 1940, commissioning as a second lieutenant in July of 1941. During World War II, in January and February of 1942, Cole volunteered for a top secret mission under the command of Lt. Col. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle.

The mission was to conduct air raids against Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 4, 1941. Members who volunteered for the mission became known as the Doolittle Raiders. They carried out the first air raid on April 18, 1942.

“As Jimmy Doolittle's copilot, he was aboard the first B-25 Mitchell bomber to leave the USS Hornet to strike back at Imperial Japan following Pearl Harbor,” Webb said. “He went on to carry that fight forward to the China-Burma-India theater throughout World War II.”

Cole and Doolittle’s B-25 was one of 16 bombers loaded onto the USS Hornet. Due to improper fuel amounts required for their intended landing sites, the raiders had to either ditch or crash land after striking their targets.

“The Doolittle crew had climbed to 8,000 feet over China that night in the midst of a thunderstorm, then jumped into the black hole and came down through a thick layer of clouds,” said Dennis Okerstrom, author of “Project 9, the Birth of the Air Commandos in World War II.” “Cole’s parachute settled over the top of a pine tree on the side of a vertiginous mountain. He wrapped himself in the silk canopy and waited for daylight. The next day he climbed down and was reunited with the rest of his crew.”

Upon the Doolittle Raid’s success, Cole stayed in the China-Burma-India theater until April of 1943. Cole conducted a high-risk aviation mission known as “Fly the Hump,” while piloting cargo aircraft. The mission, supporting those defending China, spanned the 530-mile long passage over the Himalayan Mountains. When Cole finished the Hump, he returned home.

Shortly after returning home, Cole received a phone call from Col. Johnny Alison, who was forming the 1st Air Commando Group. The elite group carried out special operations against the Japanese.

Cole served as a pilot of the C-47 Skytrain and engineering officer for the transport section. While he was in the India-Burma sector, Cole landed more than 200 soldiers deep behind enemy lines to establish an airfield. This occurred during Operation Thursday, otherwise known as the birth of the Air Commandos.

Cole’s contributions to Operation Thursday also marked the first Allied all-aerial invasion into enemy territory and the first nighttime heavy glider assault landing.

“Operation Thursday provided concepts that you and I have perfected over the years and execute on a daily basis around the globe,” Webb said. “We share, at a fundamental level, the same attitude, the same spirit, the same character as the men of the 1st Air Commando Group.”

After Operation Thursday, Cole returned to the U.S., impacting multiple commands with his expertise.

“Lt. Col. Cole’s legend will forever live on in our AFSOC community,” said Chief Master Sgt. Gregory Smith, AFSOC command chief. “It’s Airmen like him that pave the way for the future of AFSOC and our Air Commandos.”

Cole often visited Hurlburt Field and the Airmen of AFSOC, telling his story.

“He was a living legend, a participant in our storied history and a founding member of our Air Commandos,” Webb said. “I had the privilege of getting to know him in his later years and he is a part of the AFSOC family. A grateful nation joins the Cole family in paying tribute to a true American hero.”

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