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Doolittle Raiders: Changing the course of WWII

On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and U.S. commanders wanted to strike back. The way to do it? A secret bombing run over Japan led by airmen like Lt. Col. Richard Cole, reports CBS News correspondent Anna Werner.

He's 98 years old now, but he still remembers the moment when he joined the mission called the "Doolittle Raid" as a 26-year-old Air Force pilot. A message on a bulletin board was seeking people who wanted to sign up for a dangerous mission.

"There were already other people's names there, so maybe it was a little bit of inspiration," Cole said.

CBS News met Cole at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, where a permanent exhibit tells the story of the mission.

The pilots' mission was to hit back by doing what no one had ever done before: take off in their B-25 bombers from the deck of an aircraft carrier in the Pacific then fly 600 miles to the Japanese coast to drop their bombs.

The man who would lead them was Gen. James Doolittle, a master in military aviation.

Cole still remembers what Doolittle said about the mission.

"He said that it was a very dangerous mission. Anybody wanted to back out, they could without any repercussions."

No one backed out.

On the morning of April 18, 1942, they took off, headed for their key target: Tokyo. Cole and Doolittle led the fleet in their plane.

"What can you do about it, other than being scared?" Cole said.

By the end, eleven of 80 men were captured or killed, but the mission was a success.

"They were really the first heroes of World War II," said James Roberts, president of the American Veterans Center.

"While the raid itself, the raid on Japan did very little in terms of physical damage, it did have an enormous psychological impact on the American people," Roberts said.

Roberts had been urging lawmakers to recognize the Raiders with the Congressional Gold Medal before it's too late. Cole is one of only four raiders still living -- the other three are 94, 93 and 92 years old. They were finally honored last week during a ceremony in the Oval Office with President Obama.

Over Memorial Day Weekend, Cole, who is the grand marshal for Monday's National Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C., visited the gravesite of Gen. Doolittle in Arlington Cemetery to pay tribute to the man who led him and the other Raiders. Cole said it was an effort by everybody.

"I don't want to take credit for anything but doing my job," he said.

It was a job that just may have changed the course of a war.