09 April, 2019

Flown West: Richard "Dick" Cole, Doolittle Raider

The thunderclap you just felt in your soul was the sound of Eternity's welcome.

Not for you but for an old man you (probably) never met.

Wait - you didn't experience anything?  Read on.

On April 18, 1942, history minted an audacious act—80 USAAF aircrew launched from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet in 16 B-25 bombers to attack Japan.

To the machine of war, the moment was pitifully small.  An attack of sixteen twin-engine bombers were tactically and strategically so insignificant, their real threat to the enemy was less than a mosquito bite.  Additionally, the weight of resources—time, energy, money—required to "pull it off" was enormous; the Risk:Reward ratio was ridiculous, save for one powerful factor: the power of the human heart.

*break break*

Today, millions of Americans are bemoaning the lack of (insert whatever is bothering you, here).  However, all of the shirt-tearing about "our divided country" is unfortunately, largely true.  But not because of our differing beliefs—The United States is a living irony in that our nation was founded on the freedom that allows division.  We have so rarely been truly "united," our very name is worth a wry grin.

Instead, the American sense of division is because of another American irony; all of our prescribed freedoms have fostered a tumor of narcissism to grow wildly out of control.  "We the people..." is now, "I the universe."

We all know this.  There's nothing more to be said.

But.  In one more ironic act of hypocrisy, please read what I've written as it is important.

When I started interviewing WWII fighter pilots back at the turn of the century, it was less about combat stories as it was "old man stories."  At the time, the harvest was ripe.  There were plenty ofhighly accomplished veterans who, from their vantage of 70, 80, 90 years of age, had wisdom to share.

Though I've been told how "...lucky you are to get to spend time with..." so often I can't count, the truth is that the burden became heavier with every moment.  This sounds all-dramatic-and-noble but it isn't.  After the initial pleasure of wisdom's treasure, the reality remains:  it's worthless weight if no one sees the worth of carrying it.

It must be stated—wisdom is rare.  And gray hair is no guarantee of gold.  How often have any of us witnessed the result of a lousy life?  Self-centeredness, anger, cowardice, fear looks the same in spite of the person's apparent worldly "success."  Rich, poor, black, white, straight, gay, atheist, whatever...all look the same if powered by a dark heart and it's twilight beatings are a drum-thump to oblivion.

That's me with the peerless Marine, "Red" James.   Red flew Corsairs in WWII and Korea  and taught me how to identify a "coward."  If you're like me, the definition will cut to the quick and leave you thinking.  But that'll have to wait.

Ok, back to April 18, 1942.

This small attack was blessed by President Roosevelt who knew that the American people were badly in need of good news.  The opening months of WWII were bitter days of defeat.   Do yourself a favor and read up on the Bataan Death March; it was a horrible scene that embodied American defeat in the face of an arrogant enemy.  It won't be pleasant reading.

Yet, FDR understood the power of unity and what could be accomplished when the human heart beat, not as one, but as a million.

80 men clambered into their aircraft to launch from an improbable ship against a raging target towards an unknown destination...for the sole purpose of giving the American people something to believe in.

Repeat:  ...something to believe in.

It worked. 

Our nation rallied, tyranny was ruined and a generation laid the wealth of the greatest boom of prosperity the world has ever seen.

Back to the thunderclap I wrote about in the first sentence.

Again. Did you hear it?

It was the sound of Richard "Dick" Cole leaving the world, the last "Doolittle Raider."  Today, April 9, 2019, he died at age 103.

What an awesome photo!!  © Robert Seale, courtesy Air & Space Magazine.  Click here.

Many people knew the man—he quite literally lived his life to keep the story moving and would stop at the drop of a 'hello' to serve, speak, share.  Recently, Dick signed a limited edition print-run of some of my artwork and I was told by admirers, "Wow!  He signed this?!  It's gotta be valuable!"

Indeed, Dick Cole's signature makes anything priceless.  But on the basis of economics’  'scarcity-driving-demand,' it's laughably cheap as Dick Cole autographed EVERYTHING.  For anyone.  And he did so freely, without complaint.  The number of Dick Cole autographs has to be in the hundreds of thousands.   And that’s the way it should be with a legend; it can’t be hoarded.

Dick's daughter Cindy told me, "Dad knew what they all did.  He knew how important it was to teach people what could be done when you worked for something great."

Dick was a tireless advocate for the power of duty, honor and country.  He spent his precious time meeting with people, telling the Doolittle Raid story to anyone, from packed auditoriums to a phone call to a stranger.   Though years ticked off and his fellow Doolittle Raiders "head west" one at a time, he kept their legend alive, never (ever) promoting himself over the rest.  Would he (fly the Raid) again?  Of course.  Service to something greater trumps self.

Very soon, I'll play a small role in bringing the Doolittle Raider story to history teachers and students of South Dakota.  It's called "The Raid Across South Dakota" and entails flying a B-25 from Sioux Falls to airports across the state. Our hope is that History Teachers and their students (general public welcome, too!!) would show up, see/touch/hear the sound of this magnificent machine and walk away with a few mementos of the Doolittle Raid.

This is a big deal.  It's a U.S. Mint copy of the solid gold Congressional Gold Medal that was awarded
to the Doolittle Raiders.  To say it's "limited edition" is an understatement.  But, Dick wanted it to go to
the state of South Dakota in honor of the two South Dakotan's who took part in "The Raid."
It'll soon be on exhibit for people to look at...too bad you can't actually feel how heavy the thing is!
Yeah.  Dick signed it.
It's like that with wisdom—it's with us for a time...then, when the source is gone, only the stories remain.  Yet, for all of its selfishness and deceit, the human heart remains—inexplicably—malleable and ready for the impression of something greater than itself.

To the rest, if you didn't hear the thunder of a great man leaving behind an even greater legacy, there’s still hope - learning about people like Dick Cole has a wonderful way of opening the ears, eyes and mind.

Dick was, is and will always be, an American hero.

I, for one, join the many people who listened what he championed.

That's me.  And Dick Cole (r), daughter Cindy and 352nd FG ace Alden Rigby (l), in the back of my minivan.
There is no celebrity, no sports figure, no-no-one that can replace the honor of carting around two genuine
"normal, average, American" heroes.

Do you know a bona fide hero?

Take them out to lunch.