Connect to share and comment
For Jimmy Doolittle's co-pilot, taking off from an aircraft carrier, flying hundreds of miles and bombing Japan was the easy part of the daring 1942 American air raid on Tokyo.
The worst moment came hours later, when he had to parachute out of his B-25 bomber over China in the middle of a heavy storm.
"That was the scariest time," said Richard Cole, now 98 years old.
"There you are in an airplane over a land you are not familiar with, under a big weather front, very active with lots of rain, with thunderstorms and lots of lightning and you are going to jump out," he said.
"There are lots of questions that are going through your mind."
The oldest of four surviving veterans of the storied Doolittle raid that boosted America's morale in the early days of World War II, Cole will take part in a final reunion Saturday with two of his comrades at the US Air Force's National Museum near Dayton, Ohio.
The raid has been immortalized on screen and in numerous books, but Cole said he never expected the operation would take on so much importance.
"I never dreamed this thing would last so long and that so many people would be interested in it," he said in a telephone interview with AFP.
The bold operation was led by Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, who became an American hero after 16 B-25 bombers under his command struck Tokyo five months after the Japanese decimated the US Navy at Pearl Harbor.
Cole was a lieutenant when he volunteered for the top-secret mission, and though he knew it would be dangerous, he only learned of the target aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet in the Pacific Ocean.
Once the crews were told they would be attacking Japan, there was "a lot of jubilation," he said. "But then it became kind of quiet because people were realizing what they were going to be doing."
The assault was close to a suicide mission, stretching the bombers' range to the limit.
The plan called for the planes to fly over Japan with no fighter escorts and then head towards eastern China, where homing beacons would supposedly guide them in for a landing.
Yet Cole said all the crews were upbeat. "We were pretty confident that even though there would be casualties, that we could do the job."
After their carrier was spotted by a Japanese vessel, Doolittle decided to launch the raid immediately, 10 hours earlier than scheduled and 650 nautical miles (1,200 kilometers) from Japan.
The 16 aircraft took off on April 18, and arrived over Japan six hours later at about noon, achieving total surprise.
"We were not jumped by any kind of a fighter or other airplane," Cole said. "We went across at Japan at low altitude. We could see planes above us and apparently they couldn't see us."
There was "a little bit of anti-aircraft fire" that was inaccurate and after a bombing run that lasted only a few minutes, the B-25s got "the heck out of there," he recalled.
As they flew toward China, the navigator passed a note up to the cold, noisy cockpit. They would run out of fuel 180 miles (290 kilometers) short of their destination, the note said, meaning the plane would have to be ditched at sea.
A strong tail wind, however, "pushed us all the way to China," Cole said.
They arrived on the coast at dusk, amid heavy rain and wind. The planes were supposed to be guided by a homing signal to landing strips in China but there was no such sign.
They kept flying as far they could over China, until the fuel tanks were empty.
The whole crew parachuted out safely, though Cole's chute was caught in a tree. In darkness and pouring rain, he opted to stay atop the tree until daylight.
"After that, I climbed down and started walking west with my compass.
"And after walking all day, I came on to a paramilitary compound and was taken in by the Chinese, who were very helpful."
He and his crewmates were eventually reunited and flown out on a US aircraft.
But all B-25s were lost in the raid, and Doolittle worried he would be court-martialed as a result.
Although the planes carried a small number of bombs and caused only modest damage in Tokyo and elsewhere, the attack's psychological effect -- in Japan and the United States -- was dramatic.
Americans felt they had scored a counter-punch, and an embarrassed Japan soon launched an unsuccessful naval attack at the Midway Atoll at the northwestern end of the Hawaiian Island chain that proved a turning point in the war.
It would be more than two years before US aircraft bombed Japan again.