David Thatcher, war hero, is doing fine these days.
He uses a cane and walker at times – all those years of tromping the pavement of Missoula delivering the mail finally took their toll on his knees.
But walk he does, at age 94. Missoula’s resident Doolittle Raider can still drive around town when the need arises, and come growing season Thatcher still nurtures the vegetables, raspberries and rhubarb in the garden he and Dawn have kept for decades.
“I get around pretty good,” Thatcher allowed last week at his home on Dearborn Avenue.
He remains an inspiration to generations of Americans and Chinese who know and honor what Jimmy Doolittle’s Raiders did on April 18, 1942, in the opening months of our nation’s involvement in World War II.
Thatcher, then a corporal, was engineer/gunner in the back end of a B-25, one of 16 sent on a daring mission from the middle of the Pacific Ocean. They stunned Japan and punctured its aura of invulnerability by dropping bombs on a theretofore untouchable Tokyo and surrounding towns.
While not especially destructive, the bombing provided a tremendous morale boost for an American military and public in desperate need of one after the attack on Pearl Harbor four months earlier.
The Doolittle Raid remains a storied chapter in our nation’s past, and the surviving Raiders of all ranks forged an uncommonly tight bond in the following decades, cemented by reunions each April 18 from 1945 to 2013.
In the past year, Thatcher has seen the passing of two more fellow Raiders and friends. That leaves just two of the original 80: Thatcher, who grew up around Billings and came to forestry school in Missoula after the war, and Dick Cole of Comfort, Texas, Doolittle’s co-pilot.
Cole turned 100 years old in September, and though he’s hard of hearing, he too is spry. Those who know him compare Cole favorably to the Energizer Bunny. He’s in Washington, D.C., on this Veterans Day with his daughter, Cindy Chal, who accompanies him on regular trips to Doolittle and other military events.
Thatcher counts Cole as a close friend, though their time together is limited by distance and age these days. Cole and Chal were in Missoula briefly in September, flown here from San Antonio in a twin-engine private jet. They picked up the Thatchers and flew to Reno, Nevada, for the annual Reno Championship Air Races. There, Cole’s 100th birthday was marked with a cake that Thatcher could only marvel at.
“It was about three feet high,” Thatcher said with a chuckle. “The top layer was the size of a regular birthday cake and it got bigger as it went down.”
His is the same gentle demeanor that so impressed a military liaison with a flair for report writing in 1942.
“Beyond the limits of human exertion, beyond the call of friendship, beyond the call of duty, he – a corporal – brought his four wounded officers to safety,” Merian C. Cooper, a logistics officer for the Doolittle Raid, wrote of Thatcher after debriefing all the surviving, uncaptured Raiders.
“Medal of Honor? Pin it on him. He earned it.”
Instead, Thatcher received a Silver Star, one of just three endowed on heroic Raiders in the aftermath of their historic raid.
David Thatcher was the only one of the five-man crew who wasn’t seriously injured when Lt. Ted Lawson crash-landed their bomber – nicknamed “The Ruptured Duck” after a training mishap – near the shore of a Japanese-occupied island in China that dark and rainy night.
In the ensuing days, Thatcher helped grateful Chinese guerrillas and fishermen smuggle the injured Lawson, copilot Dean Davenport, navigator Charles McClure and bombardier Robert Clever to the mainland and medical help, dodging Japanese patrols along the way.
More than 70 years later, Thatcher vividly recalls the rainy trek, the courage of his guides and crew members, and the reception the assembled Raiders received at a banquet in Chongquing. A display of his medals at home includes the Chinese Medal of the Armed Forces, presented by Madame Chiang Kai-shek, wife of the Chinese leader.
Thatcher describes in detail how he exchanged places with T.R. “Doc” White, one of the other Silver Star recipients, and made his way with White’s crews and then others across China to India, Africa, Brazil and Puerto Rico before landing stateside in Florida.
The Doolittle Raid was a pivotal point in the war and “very necessary,” said Thatcher’s son-in-law, Jeff Miller, of Missoula. “But nobody talks about the rest of the story. These guys weren’t put on the sidelines. Too often, the story stops at the Doolittle Raiders.”
Indeed, by October 1942 the famous raid in the Pacific was a distant memory. After rigorous and dangerous training in Tampa, Florida, on Martin B-26 bombers, Thatcher was one of 12,000 troops to ship out of New York Harbor on the Queen Mary, which zigzagged its way across the North Atlantic to avoid detection by German U-boats.
In the next several months, Thatcher flew 26 bombing missions over North Africa, the Mediterranean and Italy. He participated in the first bombing of Rome in July 1943.
Through all the danger, disease was the only thing that slowed him down. Upon arriving in England, he spent two weeks in a hospital in Norwich with malaria while the rest of his outfit moved out to Tunisia. He probably contracted it in India, Thatcher said.
Then, in October 1943, hepatitis that he blamed on sanitation issues laid Thatcher low. He spent 2 1/2 months in a tent hospital in Tunisia. He returned to his squadron, but he didn’t go flying after that.
Lawson, crew chief of “The Ruptured Duck” in the Tokyo raid, lost his leg but – thanks in large part to Thatcher – not his life from the crash.
By the time Thatcher returned to the United States in December 1943, Lawson had finished his first-hand account of the Doolittle Raid that was published as “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.” Hollywood immediately jumped on it.
A movie by the same name was filmed at MGM Studios. It starred Van Johnson as Lawson, Robert Mitchum as pilot Robert Gray, Spencer Tracy as Doolittle and Robert Walker as Thatcher. “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” received an Academy Award in 1945 for best special effects and was nominated for an Oscar in the category of black and white cinematography.
On leave in January of 1944, Thatcher toured the set and met the cast, including Walker. Thatcher was favorably impressed.
“I think he did a decent job,” he said.
Lawson’s “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” was the first of several books spawned by the Doolittle Raid. Just this year, “Dick Cole’s War” and “Target Tokyo” have appeared on the shelves.
A film crew from China visited the Thatchers' home in Missoula a couple of years ago, and the documentary that resulted aired recently in China.
“They’re still pretty proud of us for what we did,” Thatcher said. “They had been fighting Japan for four years and had never been able to bomb the Japanese homeland, so when the Raiders bombed it, they treated us royally over there.”
It’s horrific to think about, but according to Chinese estimates, some 250,000 Chinese men, women and children were killed when Japanese troops went looking for the Raiders from May until August of 1942. The devastation they spread included cholera, typhoid and other pathogens, some of which spread to Japanese forces and killed some 1,700 of them.
It was murder on par with the Nazi war camps in Europe, but largely unknown in the Western world.
The Thatchers’ son, Jeff, is director of communications for the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. Last winter, several of the children of Raiders created a nonprofit corporation called The Children of the Doolittle Raiders, of which the younger Thatcher was named president.
“Our mission is to keep the legacy of the Doolittle Raiders alive, and we’re trying to accomplish that through a lot of different areas,” Jeff Thatcher said from his office in Little Rock.
In September, he was in Beijing where he was a guest of honor during the commemoration of the “70th Anniversary of the Victory of the World Anti-Fascist War and the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression.”
Among the dignitaries Jeff Thatcher met was Max Baucus, the U.S. ambassador to China from his home state of Montana. It was, Thatcher said, Chinese president Xi Jinping’s first big event and it was impressive: a grand assembly and military parade at Tiananmen Square, a memorial reception at the Great Hall of the People and an evening memorial gala, also at the Great Hall.
“I was amazed by how much interest there is and how much they venerate the Raiders,” Thatcher said. “Me going there was like a huge deal to all of them. I felt a little like a rock star.”
Afterward, he toured parts of Zhejiang Province, retracing his father’s footsteps from 1942. One of his escorts was his friend Melinda Liu, the Beijing bureau chief for Newsweek and daughter of “honorary Raider” Tung Sheng Liu, who died in 2009. Another was Doolittle Raid researcher Zheng Weiyong, who recently published a book in China about the Raiders.
Jeff Thatcher saw and photographed a cave where members of one crew had hidden from Japanese troops, and toured an exhibition hall in Shipu and a city museum in Quozhou, where displays had been erected for the Raiders. In Linghai township, he was shown the restored Enze Clinic, where Lawson’s gangrenous left leg was amputated and where David Thatcher also stayed.
Most impactful was a visit to the beach where “The Ruptured Duck” went down and David Thatcher’s true heroics began. A woman from the local village presented him with a piece of the airplane.
“That was really a moving moment for me, really an emotional moment,” Thatcher said. “Just the magnitude of it all hit me. My dad could have very easily been killed in that plane crash or the Japanese could have captured him as they did some of the other crews.”
Thatcher left the piece of plane to display at the Enze Clinic, which has received $1 million in upgrades to restore it to the way it was during World War II. It includes an honorary memorial hall that includes a Raiders exhibit. He was contacted by the curator later for help upgrading the facility further.
“The Raiders were such a ray of light to the Chinese when they desperately needed some morale boosting, just as they were to us,” Jeff Thatcher said. “The fact that these foreigners basically flew on a suicide mission. … They had the guts to strike a blow at Japan, which was kind of running roughshod over China at the time.”
Such actions are very much valued and remembered in China, he said.
“One thing I’ve found since I started researching this, history means a tremendous amount to the Chinese,” said Thatcher. “They don’t have short memories like we do in the United States. World War II is still vivid memory in the minds of a lot of them, and a lot of them felt like the Japanese were not sufficiently punished for their deeds.”