Flying legend from WWII Doolittle Raid visits Bradenton-Sarasota International Airport

MANATEE -- One of three living survivors of Jimmy Doolittle's electrifying "payback" raid on Japan of April 18, 1942, Lt. Col. Richard E. Cole, said the counter-attack came at a time when the American outlook on World War II was anything but encouraging.

The United States was still reeling from the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, when Doolittle led a flight of 16 land-based Army bombers off the deck of the USS Hornet aircraft carrier and struck Tokyo before continuing on to China.

The Doolittle Raiders completed their mission in spectacular fashion, raising morale on the U.S. homefront and showing the Japanese people that their homeland, too, was vulnerable to attack.

Cole, 99, will be at Dolphin Aviation, 8191 N. Tamiami Trail, today and Sunday to meet the public, along with a North American B-25J Mitchell bomber, the same kind of plane used by Doolittle's Raiders.

Cole arrived in the Bradenton area Friday, before the B-25J bomber, "Panchito," which was socked in by snow in Delaware.

Panchito is scheduled to depart Delaware and arrive at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport Saturday morning.

Cole was Doolittle's copilot on bomber No. 1 leading the attack on Tokyo.

"Although he was short in stature, he was a giant in a lot of ways. He was the greatest propeller pilot in the world at the time. He was very polite, and treated everyone with respect," Cole said of Doolittle.

"There was no double-talk with him. It was black-and-white," Cole said.

Cole credits Doolittle's leadership with all 80 crew members of the B-25 surviving the raid on Tokyo, although one man was killed bailing out after the mission, two drowned in a crash landing off China's coast, and eight were captured by the Japanese. Three of the American prisoners of war were executed by firing squad, and one died of beri-beri and malnutrition in prison.

Doolittle's Raiders didn't know until two days before their mission that their target was Tokyo.

"That was a day of reckoning. We were wondering what we had gotten ourselves into," Cole said.

Originally, the raid was set to launch April 19, but when the Hornet encountered a Japanese picket boat, it was launched a day earlier, stretching fuel supplies to the limit.

"The way Col. Doolittle had the mission planned was to cruise at low altitude -- 200 feet -- to avoid detection and pull up at the last moment to drop our bombs," Cole said.

Prior to arriving on target, Cole was flying so low that he could see the people down below and note how beautiful the peaceful countryside looked.

All the crew members on Cole's bomber survived the mission, and bailed out over rugged terrain in China.

"I had a self-inflicted injury on bailout. I pulled the ripcord and gave myself a black eye," he said.

All 80 Doolittle Raiders received the Distinguished Flying Cross and Doolittle received the Medal of Honor. Most of them flew other combat missions after their "30 seconds over Tokyo" that was made into a movie of the same name in 1944.

Cole stayed in the China-Burma-India theater after the raid until June 1943, and again from 1943 to 1944, flying "The Hump" between India and China.

Aviators who happened to be in the lobby at Dolphin Aviation on Friday flocked to meet Cole.

"You are an inspiration," flight instructor Dave Armbrust said.

Cindy Chal accompanied her father from his home near San Antonio, Texas.

"It's been very exciting," she said of the attention given to her dad. "When we were younger, our childhood was normal. We didn't even talk about it," she said.

Thomas Casey of Sarasota, business manager for the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders, said he has known Cole since about 1982, when there more than 30 survivors still living.

In those days, survivors would meet in reunions and share a drink of Doolittle's cognac.

"It was very smooth, but they were stingy with it," Cole said.

Asked about his upcoming 100th birthday, Cole said that's one thing he doesn't want to talk about.

"Never look back, something might be gaining on you," he said, quoting legendary baseball pitcher Satchell Page.

"Panchito" and Cole are expected to be at Dolphin Aviation from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

Proceeds from the sale of "Payback" prints, signed by Cole, go to the Jimmy Doolittle Scholarship Funds. The public can also tour and book rides on "Panchito."

Information: 941-928-5909.

James A. Jones Jr., Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.