Last of the WWII 'Doolittle Raiders' dies at age 103

The last of World War II's daring 'Doolittle Raiders' has passed away. Lt. Col. Richard Cole died Tuesday in San Antonio at the age of 103, according to the Air Force Times.

The Ohio native played a significant role in one of the war's most pivotal - and risky - early events. Cole served as co-pilot for then-Lt. Col. James Doolittle during the first American bombing raid on Japan, which provided an important morale boost to a nation haunted by the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Back in April of 1942, the U.S. fleet in the Pacific was still crippled by the surprise Japanese bombing. There was no easy way to attack the Japanese mainland, so Doolittle helped come up with a plan to strip several B-25 bombers down into flying gas cans to give them the range to make it from an aircraft carrier to their targets in Japan.

There was one catch - after dropping their bombs, the 16 planes would not have enough gas to fly back. Instead, the 80 combat rookies planned to continue on to friendly airfields in China.

After training in Florida, the task force set sail. But the aircraft had to launch 10 hours early after being spotted by a Japanese patrol boat, reducing their range even more. Several of the crews ended up bailing out of their planes after the bombing runs.

Ultimately, seven crewmembers died - three were killed during the mission; three others were captured and executed, and one died in captivity.

Cole, though, parachuted into a tree in China and managed to catch up with Chinese guerillas operating behind Japanese lines.

The raid did not cause a lot of physical damage in Japan, but the startled Japanese were forced to redeploy their defenses. Americans celebrated; Cole was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and, decades later, the Congressional Gold Medal.

"Knowing that we did the mission and did it like it was supposed to be done, we felt pretty good about it," Cole said three years ago.

Cole later wrote a book about his service in the war. Proceeds from "Dick Cole's War" go to a scholarship fund in Doolittle's name for students in the aviation field.

He also helped make sure the Doolittle Raiders' legacy will live on. Back in 2016, Cole helped the Air Force announce that the service's next stealth bomber, the B-21, would officially be called the 'Raider.'

A memorial service is being planned at Joint Base San Antonio. Cole will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

FOX 13 News reported this story from Tampa, Fla.