Last Doolittle Raider passes, planted seeds for today’s AF

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Courtesy photo On April 18, 1942, Airmen, led by Lt. Col. James Doolittle, carried the Battle of the Pacific to the heart of the Japanese empire with a surprising and daring raid on military targets at Tokyo, Yokohama, Yokosuka, Nagoya, and Kobe. This heroic attack against these major cities was the result of coordination between the Army Air Forces and the U.S. Navy, which carried the 16 North American B-25 medium bombers aboard the carrier USS Hornet to within take-off distance of the Japanese Islands. A pair of alert escorts followed the USS Hornet to protect her lethal cargo of B-25 bombers. The aircraft carrier Hornet had 16 AAF B-25s on deck, ready for the Tokyo Raid.

SAN ANTONIO — When Lt. Col. Dick Cole pushed the throttles forward April 18, 1942, to coax the lumbering, indecisive B-25 Mitchell bomber off the rolling deck of the USS Hornet for an audacious raid on Tokyo, he had no conception of space as a warfighting domain. “Cyber” would not be a word for several more decades; drones, GPS and mid-air refueling were nothing more than fanciful science fiction.

But as Airmen and families celebrated the life of Cole with a memorial befitting the last remaining member of the famed “Doolittle Raiders,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said Cole’s legacy carries a deeper meaning.

The Doolittle Raid and Cole’s passing focus attention not only on the man who was celebrated, but on the influence the mission – and the 80 men involved – had in charting a course that is apparent across today’s Air Force.

Goldfein explained the larger significance during remarks April 18 at Cole’s memorial service at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, noting that the effort, ingenuity and bravery that led to the mission being conceived, planned and executed are the same forces that define the Air Force today, only with additional “tools” including drones, satellites, stealth, GPS and an array of cyber capabilities.

Once airborne from the Hornet, Goldfein said, “Colonel Cole and his fellow Raiders cemented the very notion of joint airpower with the clear statement that America’s Air Force, working side by side with our joint teammates, can hold any target at risk anywhere, anytime.”

That capability – and the ability to demonstrate it – became the backbone of successful deterrence during the Cold War and after. The 16 B-25s and 80 crew that flew the mission were among the earliest examples of sophisticated joint operations and multidomain applications that today are the foundation of the strategy for protecting the United States and its interests.

“Back then, it was the B-25,” Goldfein said, referring to the state of the art in 1942. “Today, it’s the B-2 (Spirit), the B-1 (Lancer), and the workhorse of the fleet, the B-52. And in the future, the B-21 Raider. We are better prepared today to defend our great nation because of him and because of his fellow Raiders.”

Historians, in fact, agree that today, 77 years after a raid which had little value in physical terms, it remains a seminal moment not just for the Air Force but for the entire U.S. military and strategic planning.

It showed the importance of conventional deterrence by providing a clear, tangible example of how the U.S. can hold any target at risk with conventional weapons.

It provided a “real world” example that helped make the use of air power a strategic cornerstone regardless of the distance involved. In short, it demonstrated the U.S.’s ability to project forces, anywhere, anytime.

More plainly, by successfully attacking the heart of Tokyo, the Doolittle Raid accomplished something that few, if anyone, thought could be accomplished by combining courage, will power, innovation and technology is a way that had not been used before.

Among the numerous enduring legacies of the Doolittle Raid, Goldfein says one of the most significant is the way the mission in 1942 embodies value of limiting attacks against military targets while leveraging technology in ways that provide clear advantages and certainty regardless of the mission or adversary.