HURLBURT FIELD — To 103-year-old World War II veteran Richard "Dick" Cole, teamwork was a main ingredient in the formation of the 1st Air Commando Group that served in the first Allied aerial invasion into enemy territory on March 5 and 6, 1944, in Burma.
On Tuesday, which marked the 75th anniversary of the “Operation Thursday” mission, more than 200 people honored Cole and the two other surviving commando pioneers at Hurlburt Field's Air Park.
Cole, who lives in Comfort, Texas, attended the event with some protection from the windy, 44-degree-day by a blue Air Force blanket.
He heard a joke about how such blankets provided to him and his fellow airmen many decades ago probably didn’t provide much warmth, either. He saw a ceremonial wreath placed next to the Air Park’s 1st Air Commando Force memorial and watched six 1st Special Operations Wing aircraft soar through the blue sky.
Most fittingly, he sat next to his two remaining fellow commando pioneers — retired Senior Master Sgt. William Cartwright and retired Staff Sgt. Patt Meara — while they each received praise from keynote speaker Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, commander of the Air Force Special Operations Command.
“We, all of us here at (the commando group) embrace you here today as you symbolically link your accomplishments officially with us today,” said Webb, a command pilot whose service has included 117 combat hours in Afghanistan, Iraq and Bosnia.
He said current commandos feel the same butterflies and excitement of “the big mish” (mission) that the pioneering ones did three quarters of a century ago.
As each big mission approaches, “We gather our hopes,” Webb said. “We face our fears. We pray that our training has prepared us for every possible battlefield scenario, but the thing is, when you’re assigned a big mish, rarely does everything go as planned.
“So we improvise. We adapt. We innovate to accomplish the mission. And finally there is this: That persistent prayer that we utter to please don’t let me let down my teammates.”
Cole, who served in more than 250 combat missions during his career as an Air Force lieutenant colonel and command pilot, is best known as the last surviving member of the Doolittle Raiders.
They were a group of 80 Army Air Force aviators who participated in a daring aerial raid on Japan, bombing seven cities just months after the Japanese attacked Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The men trained at the then-Eglin Field for their mission, which was led by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle.
Not long after that raid, Cole volunteered for the 1st Air Commando Group and returned to the China-Burma-India theater, where he flew in Operation Thursday.
It saw early American air pioneers working alongside British Chindits to extract British soldiers from the forests of Burma, according to Air Force information.
At the start of the operation on March 5, 1944, the Chindits were glider-borne at night to a field 150 miles behind Japanese lines in Burma, according to a description on the 1st Air Commando Force memorial. It states that a dirt airstrip was carved out the next day, and within a week 12,000 additional troops, 1,300 mules and tons of equipment and supplies were airlifted in.
Webb said Operation Thursday “greatly informed the glider-assault aspect of the Normandy D-Day invasion, which took place mere months later. Operation Thursday and the 5318th Provisional Unit (Air)-1st Air Commando Group laid the capstone for what is AFSOC today.”
The Commando pioneers' legacy is one of facing the unknown and overcoming fears and challenges with adaptability and innovation, Webb said.
After the ceremony, Cole said that legacy stemmed from teamwork.
“It was a form of teamwork that I think came from Lt. Col. Doolittle,” he said.