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Doolittle Raiders honored at NAS Pensacola

Retired Lt. Col.  Dick Cole smiles after telling his story at the Doolittle Raiders ceremony at Naval Air Station Pensacola May 8, 2015. Cole, who is 99 years old, was Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot on the lead aircraft, and dropped the first American bombs on Tokyo April 18, 1942. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Ben Sowers)

Retired Lt. Col. Dick Cole smiles after telling his story at the Doolittle Raiders ceremony at Naval Air Station Pensacola May 8, 2015. Cole, who is 99 years old, was Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot on the lead aircraft, and dropped the first American bombs on Tokyo April 18, 1942. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Ben Sowers)

Retired Lt. Col. Dick Cole greets people at the Doolittle Raiders ceremony at Naval Air Station Pensacola May 8, 2015. Cole was standing in front of a B-25 Mitchell, just like the one he flew during the Doolittle Raid.  His aircraft dropped the first American bombs on Japan in WWII.  (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Ben Sowers)

Retired Lt. Col. Dick Cole greets people at the Doolittle Raiders ceremony at Naval Air Station Pensacola May 8, 2015. Cole was standing in front of a B-25 Mitchell, just like the one he flew during the Doolittle Raid. His aircraft dropped the first American bombs on Japan in WWII. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Ben Sowers)

Retired Lt. Col. Dick Cole, a Doolittle Raider, greets Col. Thomas Shank, 479th Flying Training Wing commander, and Capt. Edward Heflin, 6th Training Air Wing commodore, at the Doolittle Raiders ceremony at Naval Air Station Pensacola May 8, 2015. Cole was Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot during the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo April 18, 1942. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Ben Sowers)

Retired Lt. Col. Dick Cole, a Doolittle Raider, greets Col. Thomas Shank, 479th Flying Training Wing commander, and Capt. Edward Heflin, 6th Training Air Wing commodore, at the Doolittle Raiders ceremony at Naval Air Station Pensacola May 8, 2015. Cole was Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot during the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo April 18, 1942. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Ben Sowers)

Tim Reuters, former Army helicopter pilot and National Naval Aviation Museum volunteer, guides  451st Flying Training Squadron students  through the museum’s World War I exhibit on Naval Air Station Pensacola May 8, 2015. The students learned about naval aviation history as a part of the Doolittle Raiders celebration. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Ben Sowers)

Tim Reuters, former Army helicopter pilot and National Naval Aviation Museum volunteer, guides 451st Flying Training Squadron students through the museum’s World War I exhibit on Naval Air Station Pensacola May 8, 2015. The students learned about naval aviation history as a part of the Doolittle Raiders celebration. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Ben Sowers)

Retired Lt. Col.  Dick Cole signs a book at the Doolittle Raiders ceremony at Naval Air Station Pensacola May 8, 2015. Cole was honored at the ceremony, which commemorated the 80 men who flew B-25 Mitchell bombers over Tokyo after the Japanese attacked  Pearl Harbor. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Ben Sowers)

Retired Lt. Col. Dick Cole signs a book at the Doolittle Raiders ceremony at Naval Air Station Pensacola May 8, 2015. Cole was honored at the ceremony, which commemorated the 80 men who flew B-25 Mitchell bombers over Tokyo after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Ben Sowers)

Students from the 451st Flying Training Squadron tour the National Naval Aviation Museum at Naval Air Station Pensacola May 8, 2015. The tour was a part of the Doolittle Raiders celebration, which commemorated those who took part in the Doolittle Raid. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Ben Sowers)

Students from the 451st Flying Training Squadron tour the National Naval Aviation Museum at Naval Air Station Pensacola May 8, 2015. The tour was a part of the Doolittle Raiders celebration, which commemorated those who took part in the Doolittle Raid. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Ben Sowers)

Retired Lt. Col. Dick Cole toasts his fallen comrades at the Doolittle Raiders Ceremony at Naval Air Station Pensacola May 8, 2015. Cole, one of only two living Doolittle Raiders, signed autographs and spoke at the event. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Ben Sowers)

Retired Lt. Col. Dick Cole toasts his fallen comrades at the Doolittle Raiders Ceremony at Naval Air Station Pensacola May 8, 2015. Cole, one of only two living Doolittle Raiders, signed autographs and spoke at the event. (U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Ben Sowers)

NAVAL AIR STATION PENSACOLA, Fla. -- Retired Lt. Col. Dick Cole was the honored guest at a ceremony commemorating the Doolittle Raid at Naval Air Station Pensacola May 8.

Cole was Jimmy Doolittle's co-pilot in the lead B-25 bomber that took off from the USS Hornet to bomb Tokyo on April 18, 1942. The Doolittle Raid was America's first strike back at Japan after Pearl Harbor, and was a major morale boost for the United States early in World War II.

Before the ceremony, 479th Flying Training Group students toured the National Naval Aviation Museum. Later, under the four Blue Angels hanging from the ceiling in the museum atrium, Dr. Robert Kane, Air University director of history, emphasized to the 479th FTG students the Doolittle Raid's strategic importance.

"Since the 1200s, the Japanese Islands had never been attacked," Kane said. "[The Doolittle Raid] literally shattered their sense of security."

Kane also lauded the 80 crew members who volunteered to follow Doolittle on such a daring raid.

"They don't think of themselves as heroes," Kane said. "They think of themselves as ordinary men. They had a job to do, and they did it."

Kane's briefing was interrupted by the arrival of one of these men, retired Lt. Col. Dick Cole. The atrium erupted in applause as the students leapt to their feet. One of only two living Raiders, Cole smiled and greeted the students.

After Kane's briefing, close to 400 people packed into a hangar to celebrate the Doolittle Raid and meet Cole. The line to see Doolittle's co-pilot snaked around the hangar and out the door. The 99-year-old stood for two hours shaking hands, posing for pictures and signing autographs. He specifically requested that the rest of the event be delayed so he could meet everyone in line.

Cole then took the stage and recounted his experience as a Doolittle Raider. He explained how he found out about the mission on the squadron bulletin board and decided to volunteer, not knowing what exactly he was singing up to do.

"We were not told anything except that we had volunteered for a very dangerous mission," he said.

Cole trained with the other Raiders at Eglin Airfield, practicing takeoffs with less than 500 feet of runway to simulate taking off from an aircraft carrier.

"We had 498 feet to be airborne, with a full load of bombs,"he said.

Cole also recalled bombing Tokyo. He said they flew so low that he could see fishermen in boats and people on the beach. His B-25 was laden with incendiary bombs, in order to "light up Tokyo."

After striking their targets in Tokyo, Cole's aircraft was forced to bail over China. As he parachuted to safety, his parachute got stuck in a pine tree, leaving him suspended 12 feet above the ground. After cutting himself loose, he walked all day to find a Chinese village, where he was picked up by Chinese troops.

A few days later, Cole was reunited with Doolittle and the rest of his crew, none of whom were injured. He said Doolittle was "despondent" because he believed he would be court-martialed. Instead, Doolittle was promoted to brigadier general and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

When asked what was the proudest moment of his life, Cole unhesitatingly replied, "When I raised my hand and became a member of the military."

Lt. Col. Robert Johnson, 451st Flying Training Squadron director of operations, helped organize the event. He said that it was important for members of the Air Force and Navy to remember their rich heritage.

The event had the feel of a 1940's party, with many dressed in WWII-era clothing and uniforms, a B-25 parked in the hangar, and a live performance to the music of the time.

"The point was to bring everyone together just like we did 73 years ago," Johnson said.

Johnson hopes that the ceremony becomes an annual event to honor those who sacrificed their lives in the Doolittle Raid.