Doolittle Raiders David J. Thatcher and Richard E. Cole last stood together in Dayton as two World War II brothers-in-arms to present the Congressional Gold Medal to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.
Today, one Raider survives.
Thatcher died at age 94 Wednesday in Montana, after suffering a massive stroke on Sunday, Father’s Day, the Missoulian reported.
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At 100 years old, Cole, a Dayton native who lives in Comfort, Texas, is the last survivor of the fabled 80 Army Air Force airmen who lifted the morale of a nation at war. They launched 16 B-25 bombers off the USS Hornet on a daring raid April 18, 1942 in the first U.S. strike against the Japanese homeland since a devastating attack on Pearl Harbor four months earlier.
“He’s right now probably going through the worst time in his life because he’s lost one of his best friends, but now he stands alone as the last Doolittle Raider left,” Tom Casey, the Raiders’ long-time business manager, said Thursday.
Cole, a retired lieutenant colonel, was the co-pilot in the first plane off the carrier deck with legendary airman Jimmy Doolittle in the pilot’s seat on their way to bomb a factory in Tokyo. Cole was last in Dayton in April for the Air Force museum premiere of a documentary about his life, “Dick Cole — One Hundred Years a Hero.” He will be 101-years-old in September.
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In a decades-old tradition, Casey said Cole was expected to travel to the museum on the 75th anniversary of the raid next April to turn over one of two 80 silver goblets still standing upright in the Doolittle Raiders exhibit. When a Raider dies, historical precedent calls for the one of the goblets to be turned upside down. This time, the transition will honor Thatcher.
“I think his passing means that our republic has lost another national treasure,” said Jeff Underwood, Air Force museum historian.
Funeral services were set next Monday in Missoula, Montana for Thatcher, who retired from the U.S. Postal Service after his time in uniform in World War II. Two bombers, a B-1 Lancer and a B-25 Mitchell, were to fly over ceremonies honoring the former tail gunner-engineer, Casey said.
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Thatcher, a former staff sergeant, was recognized with the Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross during the war. He helped save the lives of his B-25 “Ruptured Duck” crew after the plane dropped bombs on industrial targets in Tokyo and crash landed off the Chinese coast when the plane ran out of fuel.
“He was able to not only survive the crash but gather his crew on the beach and protect them because they were all busted up so badly,” Casey said. The Chinese helped the crew evade the Japanese and return to the war.
Thatcher flew combat missions in the B-26 Maurauder in northern Africa and Europe after the famous first raid on Japan. “Some of those stories he used to tell raised the hair on my neck,” Casey said.
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“Dave’s a hero and he doesn’t think of himself being a hero,” said Brian J. Anderson, 64, of Salem, N.H., a Doolittle Raiders Association member who lobbied federal lawmakers for years to get the Raiders the Congressional Gold Medal. “When you get to know Dave and talk to him he was just an average guy who worked for the post office. He was a just a nice, kind, gentle man.”
Casey, 80, of Sarasota, Fla., said Thatcher was a quiet man in years past when they first traveled together to public appearances across the country, but later he “became probably the best story teller of all the Raiders.”
Cole and Thatcher and other Raiders who have since died traveled to the Air Force museum several times for reunions and special events. In the most recent gatherings that attracted national attention, they attended ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the raid with a fleet of B-25s flying over in April 2012, the Doolittle Raiders Final Toast in November 2013 and presented the Congressional Gold Medal, now displayed the museum, in April 2015.
“When they were holding the medal, they understood, ‘Hey, this isn’t for us,” Underwood said, “it’s for all of us.”
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