By: Antonio Olivo (Washington Post)
The weather over Arlington National Cemetery was sunny and clear, similar to the day in 1942 when Richard Cole helped change the course of American history as one of James H. Doolittle’s “Raiders” during World War II.
As he stood before the grave of his former commander, the 98-year-old ex-pilot who helped stage a daring attack on Japan that lifted American spirits at a crucial time said the memory is bittersweet.
Cole flew in from his home in Texas to be the grand marshal in Monday’s Memorial Day Parade in Washington and to accept a Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of the Doolittle Raiders — a group of 80 U.S. airmen whose mission into Japan on April 18, 1942, inspired Americans reeling over the Pearl Harbor attack and other Japanese victories.
As part of the dwindling ranks of surviving World War II veterans, and one of only four surviving Raiders, he said the honor was joyful but also a bit lonely.
“You’re here to pay your respects to him, but at the same time, you wish they were all still here,” Cole said after saluting Doolittle’s tombstone Friday and those of some other Raiders buried nearby.
Of the 16 million Americans who fought in World War II, about 1.5 million are still alive, according to the Arlington-based American Veterans Center.
The 80 U.S. airmen who volunteered for the Doolittle Raid are giants among that generation of veterans, even though the popular memory of their exploits is fading as the drama of more recent wars eclipses their significance.
“It’s not a well-known story anymore,” said James C. Roberts, president of the American Veterans Center, which is helping to coordinate a documentary film about the Raiders. “That’s something we’re trying to address.”
Cole’s recollections remain in tight formation, their wings glistening in the sun.