Missoula's Doolittle Raider dead at 94
Now it’s down to one.
David Thatcher, one of the last two airmen from the fabled Doolittle Raiders of World War II, died early Wednesday in a Missoula hospital.
His son Jeff said Thatcher, 94, had been going downhill for the past month or so and suffered a massive stroke on Sunday, Father’s Day.
“He was an incredible father, just a very humble, soft-spoken man,” the younger Thatcher said. “A man of few words, but significant actions.”
Thatcher’s death leaves Dick Cole of Comfort, Texas, as the lone survivor of the 80 Doolittle Raiders who flew 16 B-25s on a daring bombing foray over Japan on April 18, 1942 – months after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Cole, Col. Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot on the raid, turned 100 last September.
Like Thatcher, his close friend, Cole has remained active in Raiders reunions and programs. He’s expected to travel to Missoula with daughter Cindy Cole Chal for funeral services on Monday.
“It’s going to be a little tough on him right now,” said Tom Casey, the Doolittle Raiders’ business manager, from his home in Sarasota, Florida. “Lt. Col. Cole was quite surprised about David’s passing. He always thought he was going to go first.”
Thatcher and Cole became the last surviving Raiders after Ed Saylor and Bob Hite died in January and March of 2015. Saylor lived in the Seattle area but grew up in Brusett, Montana, near Jordan. Doolittle himself died in 1993.
Casey confirmed that Thatcher will be accorded full military honors Monday, including a noon flyover by a B-1 Bomber and a B-25 Bomber following graveside services at Sunset Memorial Gardens on Mullan Road. Thatcher was a staff sergeant, and Casey said such honors aren’t normally accorded to enlisted men.
“I was able to work with the Air Force and explain this is not just a sergeant or a corporal. This is a Doolittle Raider,” he said. “We want him treated like he was a five-star general.”
Thatcher was a 20-year-old tail gunner/engineer on the bomber nicknamed the “Ruptured Duck” in April 1942. It was piloted by Lt. Ted Lawson.
“His plane was No. 7 to take off from the carrier that day and they almost went right into the sea,” Casey said. “There was a mix-up between pilot and copilot. Thank God for those powerful little engines and for the hand of God that they didn’t make it into the ocean.”
After bombing targets in Tokyo, Lawson steered the Ruptured Duck toward the Chinese mainland and safety. Low on fuel, he made a crash landing in 15 feet of water off an island beach. All but Thatcher were seriously injured when the plane flipped on its top. Bruised and temporarily disoriented, Thatcher escaped out of the back of the plane and saved the lives of his four more seriously injured crew mates by gathering them on the beach and convincing friendly Chinese guerrillas to take them inland. On the way they successfully dodged Japanese patrols.
Lawson had a leg amputated in a Chinese hospital. In 1943 he wrote “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” – the first account of the Doolittle Raid. It became a best-seller and was made into an Academy Award-winning movie starring Spencer Tracey as Doolittle. Thatcher was played by Robert Walker.
Though inflicting minimal damage on targets in Tokyo and other cities, the Doolittle Raid is credited with changing the course of World War II in the Pacific. It revealed to the Japanese their vulnerability to air attack and changed their mindset and sense of self-protection, historian Gary Boyd told Air Force News Services last year.
“After the attack they recalled aircraft back to Japan and they became obsessed with increasing the zone of protection from the home empire,” Boyd said.
Born in Bridger on July 31, 1921, David Thatcher graduated from high school in Absarokee in 1939 and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in December 1940. He and wife Dawn were married after the war and celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary in December. They’ve lived most of those years on Dearborn Avenue in Missoula, where Thatcher was a clerk and later a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service.
He’s survived by his wife and three of their five children – Sandy Miller of Missoula, Becky Thatcher-Keller of Jamestown, North Dakota, and Jeff, who’s director of communications for the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce in Little Rock. Another son, Gary, was a U.S. Army Ambulance pilot who was killed in a helicopter crash in South Vietnam in 1970. Daughter Debbie died in 2009 from complications of brain cancer.
Like many Doolittle Raiders before him, Thatcher shunned the tag “hero.”
“He always said he was just doing his job,” recalled Jeff Thatcher, who is thankful he had the foresight to record his father’s memories last year during a visit home.
That job included the daunting experience of flying in the back ends of B-26s on 26 dangerous bombing missions over Italy and Yugoslavia from North Africa.
“He told me of all his time in the service, that was the time that he was most fearful,” Jeff Thatcher said. “He said if the B-26 crashed, he would have been toast because it was impossible or really difficult to get out of that plane.”
Three other Doolittle Raiders were shot down and captured on similar raids in North Africa. All spent the rest of the war in German prisoner of war camps, said Missoula historian and publisher Stan Cohen.
In 1983 Cohen wrote and edited, “Destination: Tokyo” – the definitive photographic history of Doolittle’s Tokyo Raid. He began attending the annual reunions of Doolittle Raiders around the nation that year and was at almost every one through the last one in April 2015.
“For being a ‘hero’ he was one of the quietest heroes you’d ever want to meet,” Cohen said. “And he was one of the nicest individuals I’ve ever met.”
“David Thatcher lived a life of courage and selfless service to our great nation,” U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said in a statement. “His dedication to America during WWII shall be remembered for setting an enduring example of heroism.”
Tester introduced a Senate resolution in 2012 to honor Thatcher and the other members of the Doolittle Raiders. He said he will be entering Thatcher’s story into the official Congressional Record.
Thatcher moved with Dawn from Billings to Missoula after the war to attend forestry school. He didn’t attend early Doolittle reunions presided over by Doolittle himself, by then a general. Later Thatcher became a regular, and in recent years, one of the Raiders’ leading voices.
“In the early years he wouldn’t say any more than he had to and was very short with his explanations of his experiences,” Casey said. “But then as he grew older, he started getting more accustomed to the public. He turned out to be the best Raider storyteller we had. He remembered so much.
“He had a wonderful attitude, not only about life but about people.”
Monday’s funeral service is scheduled for 10 a.m. at Garden City Funeral Home, 1205 W. Broadway. A full military ceremony with honors will be held at Sunset Memorial Gardens at 11:45 a.m., with the flyover at noon followed by a reception at the funeral home.