AFTER HE SPENT those 30 seconds over Tokyo that made him world famous, Richard Cole—Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s copilot on the innovative April 18, 1942, raid against the Japanese capital—parachuted into China. With help he reached India where, for the better part of a year, he flew transport planes carrying cargo over the Himalayan “Hump” between New Delhi, India, and Kunming, China, and back, then transported glider-borne troops in an invasion of Burma.
Between those assignments Cole met, wooed, and wed fellow aviator Lucia Marta Harrell. Retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1966, the former B-25 pilot took up orange growing in Comfort, Texas. His neighbor Warren Reed—who once had been a P-38 pilot—was growing grapefruit. For 14 years, the two former airmen delivered produce to a circuit of customers. Now, at age 100, Dick Cole travels to aviation-related events, has closed down more than one hotel bar, and at home enjoys rummaging in his barns. He recently sat for a phone interview facilitated by daughter Cindy Cole Chal.
When did you first become interested in aviation?
I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, where I was born in 1915. When I was nine, I joined the Airplane Model League of America. Members made “stick” planes out of balsa wood powered with rubber bands.
What was it like to have Jimmy Doolittle—a boyhood idol of yours—choose you as his copilot? How was Doolittle as a boss and mentor?
Every moment I spent with Colonel Doolittle I was in a state of awe. He was a powerful personality, but you never experienced a sense of separation between him and you. In his realm you were on a team. He really put the concept of “team” on the map.
Which characteristics do you think helped make you a successful airman?
I was in good condition. I didn’t smoke or drink. I got training that taught me to keep a good eye out. I always enjoyed flying—all the time, even when the weather was bad. And I never really was struck by misfortune, like losing an engine or having to tangle with an enemy fighter.
Whom do you think of as the heroes of World War II?
Well, in a war—and even in peacetime—heroes are the people who know their jobs and do them. One was Colonel John Alison of the Flying Tigers. Others were Colonel Doolittle and Charles Lindbergh and others who took risks that brought about important consequences.
You started out left-handed. Did being made a righty affect your flying career?
When I was a child and got changed into a right-hander, for a while I wasn’t much good with either hand, but I adjusted. Being ambidextrous was a general help to me. The first trainer I flew had a throttle control in the center, but the next two trainers had the throttle on the left, and even though I had been retrained to use my right hand I took to that. When I flew larger planes the controls were back on the right but I could work with it.
Rate the B-25 medium bomber.
The biggest drawback was noise, but otherwise it was a dream airplane. Getting into a B-25 was like getting into a modern sports car after driving a Ford Model T. I remember sending my folks a newspaper photo of a line of Mitchells with a note saying something like, “Look at these babies!”
What was your reaction when, at sea aboard the USS Hornet, you learned that you would be bombing Tokyo?
I guess I felt the same way as the rest of the people aboard. There was a lot of jubilation and so forth, and then it got kind of quiet as people realized what they were getting mixed up in. But nobody jumped ship and nobody bailed.
How did you like being at sea?
I didn’t get seasick, but I never was able to get used to seeing nothing but water. I was not made to be a sailor.
As you and Colonel Doolittle began your bomb run, what was going through your head?
As we were flying over the Japanese countryside, I was impressed by the beauty of the place, and as we came over Tokyo I was amazed that nobody was jumping us and that there was no ack-ack. This was the first time that any of us who were on the raid had seen combat, and I thought, “So far, so good.”
What was it like to fly over the world’s tallest mountains?
Most of the time flying the Hump was a milk run. But during the dry season the winds would shear up and down—you could drop 10,000 feet in seconds—and that was very disturbing. Fortunately the C-47—or the civilian version that we flew, which was called the DC-3—held together well, and we didn’t lose that many planes.
What were you hauling?
Flying into China, we carried aviation gas in barrels for the squadron based in Kunming that used to be the Flying Tigers. We dropped rice and supplies to Merrill’s Marauders and we also flew American mules into China to build airstrips there. Flying back from Kunming we brought tungsten to harden the steel that went into aircraft frames.
What was your schedule?
It took about six hours to make it to Kunming. We didn’t fly daily, but we could wind up doing 24 hours of flying. Jake Sartz and I roomed together. We each bought a bottle of Scotch we planned to drink in our off-hours, but we decided to save that hooch for when we finished our tour of duty, which was a very good decision.
Assess the C-47 and the C-87—the transport based on the B-24 heavy bomber.
The C-47 was a good plane, but it had a pretty low ceiling and couldn’t go readily to altitude. You had to take it up in stages. The C-87 was a real boon. The engines were turbocharged, and you could go right to 30,000 feet. A C-87 cleared the Himalayas really well.
You once looped a transport.
I guess it was a case of monkey-see, monkey-do. Before I could fly the Hump I had to be checked out in a DC-3 by Johnny Paine. He had been chief pilot for Eastern Airlines. With him at the controls beside me I took off three times and landed three times. “Say, how’d you like to loop this thing?” Johnny asked. I looked at him as if to say, are you kidding me? “Let’s see if we can do it,” he said. He put that DC-3 through two loops and looked over at me. I went ahead and made a loop—but I couldn’t see any value in doing a second one.
What challenges did DC-3s present in use as military planes?
They were from passenger airlines, so their doors were narrow, which made loading and unloading a little tricky.
You once landed just as Japanese pilots bombed the field.
I was coming down onto the strip when the Japs started in. I was able to get the plane onto the ground and get out of the aircraft. I threw myself into some tea bushes alongside the field, and as I lay there a piece of shrapnel hit the ground right in front of my nose. If I had been standing I wouldn’t be talking to you now.
In the China-Burma-India Theater, uniform discipline was, shall we say, relaxed. You were known for wearing a U.S. Navy jacket.
After parachuting into China I was on my way to India through Kunming. That first night in Kunming we went into a cantina the Flying Tigers favored, where there were all kinds of people. A P-40 crewman liked my A-2 leather jacket, and I liked his leather jacket, which was from the navy and had pockets and a fur collar. We exchanged jackets, and that was that.
After flying the Hump you returned stateside. What happened next?
I was at Tulsa, Oklahoma, testing B-24 Liberators at the Douglas plant. We were taking them up to 30,000 feet. One day I was doing a walk-around, examining the plane we’d be flying, when a young lady rode up on a bicycle. She told me she was taking flying lessons and planned to join the WASPs and wanted to fly big planes. I told her we couldn’t take her up because it was against regulations and we didn’t have a chute for her.
A little later we boarded, taxied, and took off. We were at about 12,000 feet when the young lady came into the cockpit. She had stowed away. Her name was Lucia Marta Harrell. We had to scrub the mission. When we landed, the copilot handed her a matchbook and asked her to write down her phone number. She did, but she gave the matchbook to me. It took me two weeks to call but I guess it was love at first sight, because within two weeks we were married. We had five kids.
Back overseas you flew in Project 9, the invasion of Burma using gliders.
Project 9 was pretty well organized, but the constant rain that spring made taking off and landing very problematic. One interesting element was that the same pilots flew fighters and bombers. They would take off in the morning in B-25s for bombing runs on Rangoon, return for lunch, and then go up in P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs.
You had a glider snagging system.
The 80x involved a reel for taking up the slack on glider lines and a couple of poles—they looked like a football goal post with flashlights taped to the tops— that held a tow rope for the tailhook to snag. You had to come down between those poles and snag the line. It was okay during the day but night pickups were pretty hairy. It was not too appealing an arrangement.
You flew a C-47 called Hairless Joe.
I was a big comics reader. One of our assistant crew chiefs, Maurice Roberts, thought I looked like a character by that name in the strip Lil’ Abner.
Among the men on Project 9 was actor Jackie Coogan.
He was very gung ho. I suppose he could have arranged not to be there, but he didn’t. He played on the baseball teams, and he was a good guy.
In 1947, an Air Force board decided against giving you a peacetime commission. How did you respond?
I applied again and meanwhile pursued my original field, forestry. I enrolled at Oregon State University in Corvallis, expecting to become a forest ranger. I was working between semesters in a sawmill when a second board offered me a commission. I was very glad; I really wanted to fly. And my assignment was Wright-Patterson Air Force Base at Dayton, Ohio—my hometown. Marta and I threw our baby, Cindy, into our blue 1941 Ford convertible with as much stuff as we could fit and drove straight through to Dayton. Housing there was tight; until we could buy a house we lived with my dad; my mom had passed away the year before.
You served in the Air Force until 1966. What did all that flying teach you?
I learned how to be organized and to adapt and to keep my eye on the ball.
You’ve done two things well: fly warplanes and grow oranges. What do those occupations have in common?
The only similarity I see between the two is that a crate of oranges weighs about as a much as a box of machine-gun ammunition. That orange growing is hard work. ✯