On April 9, 2019, America lost another hero, Lt. Col. Richard Cole, the last of the eighty Doolittle Raiders. He was 103. At the age of twenty-six, Richard Cole did not set out to become a hero, but he did.
In 1942 the very notion of an attempt by America–which was ill-prepared for any sort of warfare–to make a direct assault on Japan’s superpower was almost inconceivable, but FDR would not be dissuaded.
On April 18, 1942, eighty men, most of them scarcely out of their teens-but one in the middle of middle age-took off from a navy carrier in the Pacific. The action bolstered US morale and slowed the Japanese offensive.
When the group of volunteers first assembled, Doolittle informed them that the mission would be highly secret, dangerous, important, and interesting–and some of them probably wouldn’t return. In spite of his candor, Doolittle didn’t lose a man.
One of the volunteers, Richard Cole, served as the co-pilot on Jimmy Doolittle’s plane. From that vantage point, Cole had the opportunity to observe what Doolittle said and did before, during, and after the raid. Nine years ago, I had the rare and exciting opportunity to interview Lt. Colonel Cole about the days leading up to the raid, his reaction to it, and Doolittle’s leadership.
According to Cole, before working under the direction of Doolittle, he would not have described himself and his fellow crew members as “exceptional.” Most of them were new graduates, flying their first combat missions. This sort of unprecedented raid would normally have required experienced, mature aviators, but Doolittle went to war with the crew he had–not the one he would have liked to have had. According to Cole, Doolittle set the example, put people at ease, invited questions, and patiently treated people with respect–all the while developing a team that had never existed before. He was, in Cole’s words, “The ideal person to work with.”
Cole mentioned that Doolittle deserved the title “Master of the calculated risk” far before FDR and others conceived of the raid. Doolittle had also earned the reputation for pushing the edge of the envelope, but he had another trait that served him well too. Cole described Doolittle as “very persuasive,” which explains, at least in part, why this group of aviators didn’t balk, even when they faced uncertain odds.
The plan called for the Raiders to bomb military targets in Japan and to continue westward to land in China since, at that time, landing a bomber on an aircraft carrier was impossible. Even before takeoff, the crews realized they would probably not reach their intended bases in China, leaving them the option either to bail out over eastern China or to crash land along the Chinese coast.
When I asked Cole to describe the fear they all felt as they stood on the deck of the Hornet, realizing that they wouldn’t have enough fuel to return, he said he didn’t feel scared and didn’t see signs that others did, either. Rather, they all focused on the objectives and the “job we had to do,” as he put it.
During the flight Cole said he could look at Doolittle and see the wheels turning as he pondered his next move. Doolittle continued to make and alter decisions as the mission progressed–nothing had gone as briefed.
Doolittle thought the raid a complete failure because they had lost the aircraft, and he feared he would be court-martialed upon his return. Doolittle erred on both counts.
The raid led directly to what many historians now believe defined the turning point in the war against Japan. Doolittle teaches important lessons to those who aspire to change the course of their histories.
- They put egos and fear aside. They were a team that had a job to do. Little else mattered.
- Doolittle demonstrated the importance of boldness and risk-taking in achieving greatness. Those who don’t possess the wherewithal to discover unique solutions doom themselves to bad luck and mediocrity.
- Role modeling holds the key. Doolittle didn’t stay in the hangar and communicate with his men via radio. He flew alongside them. He risked his career, and indeed his own life, to fly into an uncertain situation that offered little chance, much less a guarantee, of complete success. As Cole put it, he wasn’t a “I’ll see you when you get back” kind of leader.
- Doolittle relied on the skills of his team members. As the group devised ways to lighten the weight of their aircraft so they could take off on the short carrier runway, Doolittle pushed them to discover their own best thinking. He created an environment for members to energize each other and formulate solutions.
- Doolittle responded favorably to unwelcome changes. The crew had planned an afternoon launch, but at 7:44 in the morning, the Hornet lookouts spotted a Japanese reconnaissance ship 10,000 yards away. Conditions were not optimal for a naval aircraft launch that morning, especially not one that inexperienced land-based bomber crews would attempt, and they were too far from their Chinese destinations to ensure safe landings. Yet, to a man, they all responded to the order, “Army pilots, man your planes.”
- Doolittle didn’t micromanage. Team members relied on themselves and each other to survive the crashes, and in some cases, imprisonment.
- The Raiders lost all their B-25s, and eleven crewmen were either killed or captured. Most of the members of Doolittle’s squadron ran out of gas and crash landed in enemy-occupied China.
Col. Doolittle wasn’t court-martialed. Instead, his actions distinguished him as one of the first heroes of the war, won him the Medal of Honor, and positioned him to serve as a stellar example of leadership for generations to come.
We no longer think of heroes as mythological or legendary figures that the gods have endowed with great strength or ability. We do think of them as noble leaders who demonstrate courage, exemplary decision-making, and a clear drive to achieve results that will benefit others. We admire them because they can fix things that others can’t. Heroes aren’t all illustrious warriors, as the Doolittle Raiders were, but we expect them to fight the good fight–people we can count on to the slay the dragons in our communities, boardrooms, and C-suites.
Jimmy Doolittle was the master of calculated risks, a forceful persuader who influenced others to do what needed to be done. Neither he nor the eighty other brave but reluctant heroes set out to become heroes on April 18, 1942. They just wanted to “do the job we had to do.” Yet, these eighty men emerged as the first heroes of WW II–heroes who serve as exemplars of what ordinary people can do when they do the right thing for the right reasons.