Heroic, historic Doolittle Raider

David Thatcher Memorial Highway dedication ceremony next week
By: 
Marlo Pronovost
Thursday, September 19, 2019
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Photo courtesy of Jeff Thatcher

David Thatcher in April 2015, when he and Lt. Col. Richard E. Cole — the last two surviving Doolittle Raiders — presented the Congressional Gold Medal that recognized the Doolittle Raiders to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio

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Photo courtesy of the Museum of the Beartooths

David Thatcher enlisted in the armed services in the U.S. Army Air Corps in December 1940.

Stillwater County’s own Doolittle Raider will be honored next week.

The David Thatcher Memorial Highway will officially be dedicated at 1 p.m. on Sept. 26, Thursday, at the corner of Highway 78 and Highway 419 (the Fishtail turnoff) in a special ceremony by the Absarokee Beartooth VFW Post 7311.

It is an 18-mile stretch of state highway that was officially designated as the David Thatcher Memorial Highway by Gov. Steve Bullock in March, in recognition of Thatcher’s heroic and historic service as a Doolittle Raider.

The book and movie “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” depicted Thatcher’s role in the Doolittle Raid. In an oral history Thatcher gave the Museum of the Beartooths in Columbus, he called it a “fairly accurate” representation of his experience.

DOOLITTLE RAID

The Doolittle Raid was a secret project developed after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1942. The project involved learning how to perform short take-offs and low-level flying in specially modified airplanes under the leadership of Lieutenant-Colonel Jimmy Doolittle.

The mission was to launch the planes from a carrier within about 400 miles of Japan, bomb Japan at night, and then fly on to China. That plan was put into action faster than scheduled when the carrier ran into a Japanese vessel on April 14, 1942.

Thatcher was an engineer-gunner for the “Ruptured Duck” airplane that bombed a steel factory in Tokyo. Thirteen hours later, the plane reached the coast of China and was forced to land on a beach occupied by the Japanese due to low fuel levels.

The plane overturned on landing, throwing the other four crew members from the aircraft. With the help of an underground Chinese group, Thatcher cared for his injured crew and carried them to a hospital.

He was eventually awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Congressional Gold Medal.

The Congressional Gold Medal had been presented in April 2015 to the Doolittle Raiders in Washington, D.C. However, neither Thatcher nor Lt. Col. Richard E. Cole — the last two surviving Raiders — could be there to receive it, Thatcher’s son, Jeff, told the News this week.

“It was subsequently flown on a B-25 from D.C. to Dayton where Dad and Cole received it on the tarmac of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. They presented it to the NMUSAF in a public ceremony that evening,” said Jeff Thatcher this week.

LOCAL BOY

Thatcher was born near Bridger and soon after, the family moved to a farm southwest of Rapelje.  He attended first grade at the East White Beaver school before the family moved yet again, this time to a farm between Absarokee and Roscoe. Thatcher has said that it was on the Rapelje farm, around the age of six, that he saw his first airplane, and a fascination was sparked.

RETURNING HOME

After the war, Thatcher returned to Montana and married Dawn Goddard from Reed Point. The couple eventually moved to Missoula and had five children. Thatcher enjoyed a long career with the U.S. Postal Service, from which he retired.

When Thatcher died in Missoula in 2016 at age 94, he left just one remaining member of the Doolittle Raiders. His obituary ran nationwide and appeared in both the New York Times and the Washington Post. The renaming of the highway is the result of a 1.5 year effort of the Absarokee Beartooth VFW Post 7311,

The public is invited to attend and join Thatcher’s family, which will include Thatcher’s widow, Dawn, and his oldest daughter Sandy and her husband, Jeff Miller. Jeff Miller will speak on behalf of the family at the ceremony.

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