COLUMBUS – For millions of Americans, the late David Thatcher was a hero. For his son Jeff, he was simply “dad.”
“We never knew about my dad and the Doolittle Raiders until my oldest sister was in high school and he came and talked to her class,” Jeff Thatcher said during a recent presentation in Columbus. “He never talked about (WWII).”
Jeff, who grew up in Missoula, was about eight when he first learned of his father’s wartime efforts. He did not understand its significance until years later.
David Thatcher was one of 80 “Doolittle Raiders” awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for “outstanding heroism, valor, skill and service to the United States in conducting the bombings of Tokyo.” He earned local renown — he is featured in an exhibit at the Museum of the Beartooths in Columbus — because he was a “home-grown” boy, born in Bridger and spending his boyhood outside Rapelje and up the East Rosebud.
The Doolittle Raid was named after Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle, a legendary aviator and aeronautical visionary who led the secret bombing mission. The high-risk operation, planned in response to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, marked its 80th anniversary this April.
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As president of the Children of the Doolittle Raiders, Jeff Thatcher was in Columbus to keep that history alive. Through programs for students and presentations for the public, Thatcher not only retold his father’s story but described how the event set off ripples that endure today. In addition, he showed the just-released documentary “Unsettled History: America, China and the Doolittle Tokyo Raid.”
The Doolittle Raid was considered a Herculean feat in part because it pushed the boundaries of aviation. The plan called for the Raiders to take off from the deck of an aircraft carrier in B-25 bombers that were never designed for such performance. Once in the air, the crews were to bomb targets in Tokyo and eastern Japan, and then fly on to friendly China.
But initial plans were scrapped when Japanese boats spotted the carrier at sea hundreds of miles from the crews’ planned take-off point. That sighting set the mission in motion. As the deck pitched in 10 to 30-foot swells, the bombers took off. But the planes left the ship with limited fuel – had they been weighed down with full tanks, the planes would never have made it into the air.
“So, taking off then was essentially a suicide mission,” Thatcher explained.
The 16 bombers hit their targets in Japan but had little reserves to make it to safety in China. One crew made a desperate landing in Russia; the other 15 bombers put down or crash-landed wherever they could. A number of Raiders parachuted into rugged mountainous terrain.
David Thatcher’s crew crash-landed their plane, nicknamed the “Ruptured Duck,” on a beach.
Three of the Raiders perished during the mission, many others were injured and eight were captured by the Japanese. The appearance of the white-skinned airmen, unexpectedly “falling from the sky,” shocked the local villagers who discovered them. Despite struggles to communicate, the Chinese shielded and aided the Americans as they fled from pursuing Japanese troops.
The surviving Raiders eventually found their way to safety in western China — traveling on foot, in boats, rickshaws, crude trucks and even astride miniature ponies — only with the help of their rescuers.
Back home in the United States, the Doolittle Raid was celebrated as the first American victory of the war. But in China, the people paid dearly. The Japanese went on to slaughter 250,000 Chinese in retaliation.
David Thatcher died in 2016, a month short of his 95th birthday. The last Raider standing, Richard Cole of Comfort, Texas, died in April, 2019, at age 103.
A VA clinic in Missoula is named for David Thatcher. The Missoula clinic is the first thing of permanence to be named for Thatcher, whose interment at Sunset Memorial Garden in Missoula 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.
Today, the bonds borne during that rescue live on and are featured in the documentary “Unsettled History.” Those personal connections also account for the warm relations among the next generation. Jeff Thatcher made two trips to China — in 2015 and in 2018 — to retrace his father’s path.
“I was told I was the first American to visit the (Nantien) island since the Raiders 73 years earlier,” he said.
While in China, he met with some of the children of the Chinese who came to the Raiders’ rescue. Despite more recent tensions between the two nations, the Chinese embraced the American visitors.
“We were the toast of the town, wherever we went,” Thatcher said. “On both trips, we found that ‘politics is local’.”
Thatcher saw the hut where his father and crew had been taken the night after they crashed on the beach. He also met a woman whose husband, as a child, had found a metal rod — a fire suppression rod from the Ruptured Duck’s engine — that they were using both as a walking stick and to stir the coals of their cooking fire.
“The villagers swarmed around us, they were thrilled to see us,” he said. “Word spreads there like smoke signals.”
He visited several memorials, including a memorial hall in Quzhou that had been established in honor of the Raiders and their rescuers. In that same city, Thatcher and fellow Americans launched a scholarship program for middle school students who wrote essays about the Raid’s impact on China.
“Every year, the essays get better and better,” Thatcher said. “Some almost bring me to tears.”
Those reestablished connections took on new meaning when COVID hit. In the very early days of the outbreak, Thatcher received a personal letter from the municipal government of Quzhou, asking him for help in locating personal protective equipment. In short order, Thatcher had raised $10,000. He scavenged for masks at Home Depot and Lowe’s, shipped them off to China and sent the remaining funds to the Chinese Red Cross.
In response, Thatcher received a letter of heartfelt thanks. Then, just a few months later, he received a second letter. This time, COVID was ravaging the United States.
“It said ‘We would like to reciprocate your generosity’,” Thatcher said.
The municipal government of Quzhou had sent him 20,000 surgical masks and 800 surgical gowns.
Thatcher has no current plans to revisit China. Instead, he hopes to keep the Raiders’ legend alive through presentations and the documentary.
The Doolittle Raid has become Thatcher’s passion. He has heard the stories countless times and has retold them countless times. But the significance of the mission really hit home when he visited the remote island in China where his father and fellow crew members crash-landed 80 years ago.
“When I stood there on the beach I had an epiphany. It hit me what my father had gone through,” Thatcher said. “If not for the Chinese, I wouldn’t have been on that beach. If not for them, I wouldn’t have been on this earth.”
The documentary” Unsettled History” will show on Montana PBS on May 30 and 31. Check listings for time.