Cole & Kittinger: Hearing History First Hand

By Scott Spangler on August 2nd, 2008

It seems fitting that my fourth decade of EAA AirVenture attendance starts like the first, meeting those who made the history I read about as a kid.

JetWhine_EAA_AirVenture_Doolittle Raider_3 On my first trip to Oshkosh in 1978 I met Pappy Boyington and George Gay (see EAA AirVenture Forums is Where Flying Friendships Form). This year I met Dick Cole, Jimmy Doolittle’s copilot on the flight over Tokyo, and Joe Kittinger who, among many other things, stepped out of a balloon at 102,800 feet and went supersonic without an airplane.

Now, as then, what struck me most about these men is their attitude, their demeanor. They all volunteered because there was a job to do, and they had the training and experience to do it. Standing down was an option never considered. The word “hero” seems to make them ill at ease, as did the standing ovations at their AirVenture forums. They consider themselves ordinary people who faced extraordinary challenges. And they consider themselves fortunate to have survived. Nothing more, nothing less.

JetWhine_EAA_AirVenture_Doolittle Raider_1 I saw Dick Cole, who retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1967, twice in one day. First, Dan Bowlin interviewed him in a Warbirds in Review program about the B-25. Their backdrop was a fine example of the airplane, part of the the Lone Star Flight Museum collection, which wears Doolittle colors.  A little later he gave a forum, at which the audience posed the questions.

Getting history first hand is a rare and special gift because it cuts through the haze of a historian’s vision and Hollywood’s artistic license (Cole said 30 Seconds Over Tokyo is the most realistic film made about the raid; Pearl Harbor is pure Hollywood.) And this was likely the last chance.

Only 11 silver goblets stand upright. Most everyone knows that there’s an engraved goblet for each of the 80 Raiders. Now kept at the  National Museum for the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, Cole’s hometown, when a Raider passes the survivors invert his goblet. Dick Cole, I learned, made the wood case that holds the goblets. “My hobby is woodworking, so I got the assignment,” he said, adding if Father Time allows, and there are “any of us left,” the survivors will reunite again next year in South Carolina.

Having read a lot about the mission, I never knew that Doolittle had 90 days to prepare for the raid. The April 19, 1942 launch date was set before he got his orders on January 17. He had to pick the airplane, select and train the volunteer crews, and sail almost to Japan in that time. And he got the job done one day early, Cole said, because a patrol boat spotted the American task force.

I never knew Doolittle looked at many airplanes but picked the B-25 because it met the mission requirements: fly 2,000 miles with 2,000 pounds of bombs. All 24 crews in the bomb group that had the most experience with the B-25 volunteered for the mission. Doolittle picked 17 crews and 16 flew the mission. Cole doesn’t know how or why he, a 26 year-old pilot with about 300 hours, was selected, but he still feels lucky to be among the chosen.

JetWhine_EAA_AirVenture_Joe Kittinger_1 Joe Kittinger is another volunteer. That’s how he got into test flying and specializing in escape systems. But I also learned that he was a pilot in the last P-47 squadron, based in Germany in 1950. And he flew three tours in Vietnam. In the early 1960s he flew the Douglas B-26. In the late ’60s he commanded a squadron of On Mark A-26s (a Douglas B-26 modified by the On Mark company), and the last in the early 1970s in F-4s, in which he got shot down and spent time at the Hanoi Hilton. There he met another pilot, John McCain.

Both forums presented videos of the events for which the speakers are most well known, Kittinger’s Project Excelsior and Cole’s flight with Doolittle. As they watched with those of us in the audience I wondered what thoughts filled their respective minds. Do they look at the young faces, shake their heads and wonder, “Was I really there, was I really that young?” Or do they see themselves as they were and remember with sadness those who never got the chance to get old? — Scott Spangler

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