It was a simple ceremony, made somewhat more grandiose by the presence of two U.S. Senators.
“My Dad would be humbled by this. He didn’t seek recognition,” Jeff Thatcher said Thursday morning after the Veterans Administration outpatient clinic on Palmer Street was christened for the late David Thatcher.
The clinic on Palmer Street became the first of three Montana VA facilities to be renamed for World War II heroes after the state’s congressional delegation pushed a bipartisan bill through both chambers last year. The other two are in Billings, a similar outpatient facility that will bear the name of Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow, and a specialty clinic to be christened for Benjamin Steele.
Thatcher, who died in 2016 a month short of his 95th birthday, was the penultimate survivor of 80 “Doolittle Raiders,” who under the leadership of Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle took the wind out of Japan’s sails in April 1942, four months after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
The last Raider standing, Richard Cole of Comfort, Texas, celebrated his 103rd birthday last September.
But as Sen. Steve Daines pointed out, there’s just one surviving widow of the Raiders, and she was on hand Tuesday, too. Dawn Thatcher sat in the front row of a crowded lobby alongside her daughter and son-in-law, Sandy and Jeff Miller, longtime neighbors on Dearborn Avenue.
The Missoula clinic is the first thing of permanence to be named for David Thatcher, whose interment at Sunset Memorial Garden on June 27, 2016, was worthy of flyovers by a B-1 bomber from Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota and a B-25 from Seattle. The latter was of the same vintage as the “Ruptured Duck” on which Thatcher flew as tail gunner/engineer in the famed bombing raid over Tokyo.
Daines and Sen. Jon Tester, the ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, were on hand. Daines, Tester and Rep. Greg Gianforte introduced the bill to rename the Montana clinics. Gianforte was represented at the 45-minute ceremony by Mike Waters, his director of veteran and military affairs and an Air Force veteran and former B-1 pilot.
Thatcher, who grew up on a succession of family farms and a dairy in eastern Montana, was 19 when he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in December 1940.
“Because I knew that’s where I wanted to be,” he said in a video interview recorded shortly before his death and shown at Tuesday’s ceremony.
He completed aircraft mechanic training in December 1941, and when 80 volunteers were sought for a dangerous, top-secret mission in early 1942, he stepped forward.
“I was a mechanic on the ground and I wanted to do some flying,” Thatcher said in the video.
Son Jeff, who grew up in Missoula and lives now in Little Rock, Arkansas, traced for the audience what happened next — the rigorous training in Pensacola, Florida; the trip across the Pacific with a 16-ship task force on the USS Hornet; detection by the Japanese, forcing the Raiders to take off a day early and hundreds of miles farther away than planned.
“As they embarked the crews knew their odds of surviving had just been dealt a major blow, and they might end up being forced to ditch in the East China Sea after their limited fuel was gone,” he said.
Thatcher’s five-man crew bombed a steel factory in Tokyo, while others found targets in five other cities. But their fuel did run out, and the Ruptured Duck crash-landed in the dark and rain off the shore of a Japanese-occupied island in China. Thatcher was the least injured of the five men, and for his efforts in the raid and for helping the crew reach safety he received the Silver Star.
Despite the musings of Doolittle after his own plane crashed, and Japanese retributions that resulted in the deaths of some 250,000 Chinese, the mission was a military success.
“It succeeded in lifting the morale of our beleaguered nation when it was at an all-time low,” said Jeff Thatcher, who twice in recent years has visited the island where the Ruptured Duck crashed. “And it later provoked Japan into attacking an American naval base at Midway, resulting in a disastrous defeat for Japan and a turning point in the Pacific war.”
His father lived to fly 26 bombing missions in North Africa aboard a Martin B26 Marauder, an airplane known as the Widowmaker.
“He told me it was the only time that he feared for his life during his military career,” the younger Thatcher said.
David and Dawn met and married after the war and raised their family in Missoula, where David had a 30-year career as a clerk and carrier for the U.S. Postal Service.
“It must be pointed out that probably 99.9 percent of the people he served didn’t know the story that Jeff just told us,” said Tester, who with Daines and Jeff Thatcher helped unveil a dedication plaque on the wall inside the clinic’s front door after the speechifying.
David Thatcher, he added, “represents the very best of this nation, and now we need to work together to make sure that every generation of veterans has the proper recognition, the health care and benefits that they’ve earned at clinics just like this one.”
Daines, son of a Marine, said he heard the story of the Doolittle Raid growing up.
“It’s such a great American story of heroism and bravery,” he said.
“Sgt. Thatcher took on a high-risk mission with strength and courage as a warrior and lived his life with humility,” said Dr. Kathy Berger, director of Montana’s VA Health Care System. “It is that type of character that each of us here at the VA should appreciate.
“For those of us who care for veterans, honoring their sacrifices and service to country should be at the forefront of our minds each day a veteran walks through our doors.”