Editor’s note: The Doolittle Raid on Japan in April 18, 1942, marked a turning point in World War II. The 75th anniversary of the raid led by famed aviator Jimmy Doolittle will be celebrated Monday and Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio
Dick Cole, 101 and the lone remaining Raider after the death last June of David Thatcher of Missoula, is expected to be on hand. He’ll be joined by members of Thatcher’s family: widow, Dawn, and daughter and son-in-law Sandy and Jeff Miller, all of Missoula; son Jeff; daughter Becky Thatcher-Keller of Jamestown, North Dakota, and granddaughter Brooke Zimmerman of Bismarck, North Dakota.
Jeff Thatcher, director of communications for the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce in Little Rock, grew up in Missoula and graduated from Sentinel High School. He’s president of the Children of the Doolittle Raiders, Inc., a nonprofit group dedicated to keeping the legacy of the Doolittle Raiders alive.
In September 2015, Thatcher traveled to China and was the first American to set foot on the beach on Nantien Island since his father’s plane, nicknamed the Ruptured Duck, crash-landed in the surf 73 years earlier. During his visit to the beach Thatcher was presented a piece of the Ruptured Duck, a fire suppression rod, that a Chinese villager had found on the beach as a child following the crash.
Thatcher submitted the following article to mark the poignant and historic occasion.
Thirty Seconds into Eternity
By Jeff Thatcher
On the morning of April 18 at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force (NMUSAF) in Dayton, Ohio, 101-year-old Lt. Col. Richard E. Cole will turn over the silver goblet of my late father, S. Sgt. David J. Thatcher, in a private ceremony that has become famous in the annals of modern aviation.
Cole’s action will conclude the final chapter in the symbolic ceremony birthed by the Doolittle Raid, a daring bombing attack on five Japanese cities on April 18, 1942 – 75 years ago – in retaliation for Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor 4½ months earlier. The attack was executed by 80 volunteer U.S. Army Air Corps flyers in five-man crews aboard B-25B Mitchell twin-engine bombers. All 16 planes were launched from the deck of the carrier USS Hornet.
Cole and my 94-year-old father were the last two surviving members of the raid led by legendary aviator Lt. Col. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, until my father passed away on June 22, 2016, in Missoula.
At age 20, my father was one of the youngest members of the raid. A Bridger native, he enlisted on December 3, 1940, after graduating high school. Inspired to fly after seeing a plane overhead as a teenager, he hoped to see the Pacific Northwest during his military service. Instead he saw much of the world after participating in one of the most daring missions in military history.
On December 7, 1941, my father and some of his buddies were at a movie in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he was undergoing engine and airplane mechanic training. When the group emerged from the theater, they heard the news that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. None of them had ever heard of Pearl Harbor.
Shortly afterwards, my father, along with 78 other young Army Air Corps fliers, volunteered for the Doolittle Raid, a secret mission whose details were not fully divulged to the 79 Raiders under Doolittle until they were on board the Hornet and on their way to their appointment with destiny.
My father, a corporal at the time, was the engineer/gunner on Crew #7, “The Ruptured Duck,” piloted by Lt. Ted Lawson. After bombing designated targets in Tokyo, Lawson headed the plane toward China.
Running low on fuel in darkness and heavy rain, Lawson tried to land the plane on an island beach. Instead the plane crashed in the surf after hitting a wave, causing it to flip over. The crash seriously injured the crew members except for my father, who was briefly knocked out.
Regaining consciousness, freeing himself from the wreckage and wading to the shore, my father reached the other crew members who had washed up. Friendly Chinese fishermen who witnessed the crash and ran down to the Americans carried the injured crewmen to a primitive hut. There my father bound their wounds with the bandage from his first-aid kit, torn pieces of clothing and Chinese rags.
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The next day “Charlie,” a local guerrilla leader who spoke rough English, agreed to coordinate the crew’s passage inland. A group of locals accompanying him built rough stretchers out of bamboo poles, rope and latticework squares, and carried the injured officers to the other side of the island. That night the group secured a sampan to carry the crew to the mainland past searching Japanese gunboats.
After a four-day journey that included a close call involving a Japanese patrol and a 40-mile trek over difficult mountainous terrain by Chinese coolies carrying the injured officers, the crew finally reached Enze Hospital in Linghai, where they received needed medical attention. Throughout the ordeal, my father constantly looked after the wounded officers. For his efforts to save their lives, he received the Silver Star.
In 1943 Lawson wrote the first account of the Doolittle Raid, “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.” It became a best-selling book later made into an Academy Award-winning movie of the same name directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starring Spencer Tracy as Doolittle, Van Johnson as Lawson and Robert Walker as my father.
Following the Doolittle Raid, my father served in England and Africa until January 1944, flying 26 missions in a Martin B-26 Marauder medium bomber over North Africa and Europe, including the first bombing raid over Rome. In July 1945 he was honorably discharged from active duty at the rank of Staff Sergeant.
Fate of the Raiders
I have often wondered how my father survived the Doolittle Raid and his subsequent 26 bombing missions when many of the other Raiders perished. His closest friend on the raid, Leland Faktor, also 20 and the engineer/gunner on Crew 3, was killed after bailing out over Zhejiang Province in China.
Of the 80 Raiders who bombed Japan, 61 survived the Raid and World War II. Three were killed after exiting their aircraft the night of the Raid. Eight were captured by the Japanese, three of whom were executed on Oct. 15, 1942. One man starved to death in captivity, and the other four were held captive for 40 months. Ten Raiders were killed in action in Europe, North Africa and Indo-China, and two died in U.S. plane crashes.
The remainder lived to gather and reminisce at annual reunions held throughout the U.S. until death thinned their ranks. The reunions, beginning the year after Doolittle and his Raiders gathered to celebrate his birthday in December 1946, were held around April 18, the anniversary of the Raid.
During the 1959 reunion the city of Tucson, Arizona, presented the Raiders a set of sterling silver goblets housed in a special glass-enclosed case, each bearing the name of one of the 80 men who flew on the mission. After the April 1961 reunion in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Doolittle turned them over to the Air Force Academy for safekeeping and display between reunions.
In 1973 Dick Cole, Doolittle’s co-pilot, built a portable display case for the goblets for easier transport to the reunions. In 2005 the surviving Raiders voted to move the goblets from the Air Force Academy to the NMUSAF where they are now permanently displayed.
At each reunion, the 80 silver goblets gleamed in their velvet-lined case, consisting of four attached folding compartments. Twenty goblets stood in each compartment, placed five high and four across. Left to right they represented the crews – 1 to 16 – based upon their takeoff positions in the raid. Each column from top to bottom consisted of the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier and gunner. On each goblet a Raider's name was engraved twice, so it could be read right side up or upside down.
Two uniformed Air Force cadets escorting the goblets placed the case atop a table in a private room and stood guard. On the morning of April 18, the surviving Raiders would meet privately in front of the goblets to conduct their solemn ceremony. After calling the roll and toasting the Raiders who had died since their last reunion, with cognac poured by the white-gloved cadets into the goblets, they would turn the deceased Raiders’ goblets upside down.
Like the goblets harkening back to the times of the Vikings, Roman legions and King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, the Raider goblets symbolize the attributes of the 80 men who participated – duty, honor and courage. Reflecting the mission’s difficult nature are the words inscribed on the Doolittle Raider crest: “Toujours au Danger” – “Always into Danger.”
Last man standing
In discussing his position last June as the last man standing among the 80 Doolittle Raiders after my father’s funeral in Missoula, Cole said: “Mathematically, it shouldn't have worked out this way. I was quite a bit older, six years older, than David. Figuring the way gamblers figure, he would have been the last man.”
Instead Cole is the last man standing. And when he raises his silver goblet for the final time to toast his 79 departed comrades, the longstanding tradition of the Raiders’ private ceremony, which cemented the bond between courageous volunteers, both enlisted men and officers, into a well-trained group who placed their collective duty as Americans above their individual lives, will end.