Air Force Lt. Col. Dick Cole, last of Doolittle Raiders, died in April at 103

EGLIN AFB — Even as the approach of a new year signals the ongoing unfolding of history, the year now passing into memory has brought an end to many tangible connections to the past.


Among the connections to history lost locally this year — and not coincidentally, one of the most-viewed Daily News stories of 2019 — was the death of retired Air Force Lt. Col. Richard E. "Dick" Cole.


Cole, who passed away at the age of 103, was the last living connection to the 80-man Doolittle Raiders, who conducted a daring World War II bombing mission over Japan.


And although he lived in Texas, Cole was a frequent visitor to Northwest Florida, where he and his fellow Doolittle Raiders trained for two weeks in March 1942 at what was then Eglin Field. One month later, Cole, flying copilot with Doolittle, took off in one of 16 B-25 bombers launched from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet.


While the damage inflicted by the raid was slight, it was considered a success because it came just months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The raid showed that Japan was not beyond the reach of American air power.


Cole was consistently humble about his role in the bombing raid.


"I don’t think that the Raiders should be remembered any more than the millions of other people who took part in World War II," Cole said during a 2018 interview at the Air Force Armament Museum at Eglin Air Force Base.


Cole was among the airmen who had to bail out of the B-25s after the raid, while the aircraft were en route for planned landings in China. Asked in the 2018 interview about his sharpest memory of the raid, Cole had a quick response.


"The thing I remember most is my parachute opening," he joked.


Cole’s last visit to this area came in March, when he visited Hurlburt Field, headquarters of Air Force Special Operations Command, for a 75th anniversary commemoration of Operation Thursday.


Another piece of World War II history in which Cole was involved, the 1944 operation saw American air pioneers working alongside British special operations soldiers to extract British soldiers from the forests of Burma. The operation marked the birth of Air Commandos as part of the U.S. military.


Air Force Special Operations Command bid farewell to Cole this way via Facebook: "We say goodbye to a true American hero ... . The last living member of the Doolittle Raiders, and an original Air Commando ... will be remembered for his grit, determination and patriotism."


Cole is also remembered in this year’s federal defense spending and policy, signed Dec. 20 by President Donald Trump.


The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act recommends that Trump, pursuant to an Air Force review, grant Cole "an honorary and posthumous promotion to the grade of colonel."


In recent comments on this provision of the defense bill, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., whose district includes Eglin Air Force Base, said, "Though Lt. Col. Cole passed away in April, his memory lives on, and his heroism is emblematic of what makes the United States military the greatest fighting force in human history."