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FROM THE ARCHIVES

1 member of the Doolittle Raid remains as fellow airman dies

Richard Cole, 100, on June 23, 2016. Cole is the last living veteran of the Doolittle Raid in 1942 after David Thatcher, 94, passed away on June 22, 2016.

ALEX HORTON/STARS AND STRIPES

By ALEX HORTON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 23, 2016

COMFORT, Texas — Few men survive seven minutes into a suicide mission. David Thatcher and Richard Cole lived more than seven decades after theirs.

Both men were among 80 members of the Doolittle Raid on April 18, 1942, the United States’ first strike against Japanese mainland targets in World War II. The raid injected morale into the American public still reeling from the Pearl Harbor attack that left thousands dead and a crippled fleet at the ravaged base in Hawaii.

Thatcher passed away Wednesday from a stroke at the age of 94 in Missoula, Montana, leaving Cole, 100, as the last surviving member of what could be called the most audacious and risky mission in American military history.

“It was really a surprise to hear he passed away. Dave was one of the youngest guys in the group,” Cole said Thursday in an exclusive interview with Stars and Stripes. “If I was a betting person, I’d say he would be the last person to go.”

It is difficult to understate the importance of the raid, planned and executed by Lt. Col. James Doolittle, who led the mission that made almost no tactical gains but contributed to victory in the Pacific, according to Naval historians.

Sixteen Army Air Force B-25B Mitchell medium bombers lumbered off the USS Hornet with crew members instructed to land or bail out over neighboring China after unleashing their payloads over Tokyo and other Japanese cities.

There would be no triumphant return to the aircraft carrier for the crews. The best case scenario for all the men was to survive hard landings in hostile territory as Japanese units dominated the ocean and land for hundreds of miles in each direction.

The B-25Bs were chosen for optimal fuel and payload capacity, though bombs had to be modified to account for the weight over the long flying time, according to a book written by the raider historian, Col. Carroll V. Gline.

But first they had to survive 462 feet of runway on the Hornet as the planes faced a headwind for a maneuver some people called impossible and too risky. No one had ever attempted to fly bombers off an aircraft carrier meant for small fighter planes.

The first bomber up: Lt. Col. Doolittle and his crew, including his co-pilot, Lt. Col. Cole. Bravery was not a factor, he said.

“We were the only B-25 crew operating for months. We were going to go on the mission whether we wanted to or not,” Cole said of the raid. “That straightens out that fairy tale.”

The raid was launched a day earlier than planned, after a Japanese vessel spotted the Hornet. The distance grew to 645 miles to their objectives, far more than the original plan of 400 miles — making it more clear that safe landings in China were even less likely.

Doolittle and Cole dropped incendiary bombs to mark targets for other bombers, including a steel mill.

Two raiders drowned and one was killed after bailing out over China. Another three were captured and executed by Japanese troops in China, and one died of disease while others remained captive. One crew landed in the Soviet Union and were interned for 13 months before escaping through Iran.

The raid accomplished few military objectives, if any. But the mission signaled to the Allies that Japan, for its isolation and distance from the United States, was not out of reach of military strikes. The raid famously boosted morale back home, which was part of the objective, Cole said.

“Our morale wasn’t bad. The country’s morale was bad,” he said. “Japan had taken over the Pacific and they weren’t going to stop. If we hadn’t bombed them, they were not going to stop until they got to the West Coast [of the United States].”

Naval historians also have said the raid provoked the Imperial Japanese Navy into enlarging their defensive perimeter, hastily extending further into what would result in the Battle of Midway two months after the raid.

The battle, often referred to the Pacific theater’s turning point, was “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare,” according to historian John Keegan. The Japanese lost four carriers and other ships, and their death toll climbed to more than 3,057 — more than the 2,403 killed at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese fleet never recovered.

Doolittle eventually climbed to lieutenant general and was awarded the Medal of Honor for the raid, though he feared catastrophic loss of all 16 of his bombers would land him in a court-martial hearing.

Cole recalled the story of Staff Sgt. Thatcher, who was on a separate plane coined The Ruptured Duck. The impact of his plane diving into the water knocked out Thatcher. The world was inverted when he regained consciousness — for a moment he stared at the floor, now above him, as the plane filled with seawater.

Thatcher acted fast to save other crew members from drowning and applied aid to their wounds. They made it ashore, and with the help of Chinese guerillas, traveled into mainland China. That moment was immortalized in the film “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo.” Thatcher earned a Silver Star for his actions.

Cole bailed out of his plane over China and reunited with Doolittle on the ground the next day after dangling from a tree by his parachute. He stayed in China and Burma, flying resupply missions over “The Hump” between India and China.

After the war, Thatcher worked for the U.S. Post Office for 30 years before he retired in 1980, according to the Associated Press. Cole last saw Thatcher last year when both men were presented with the Congressional Gold Medal — the highest civilian medal given to American citizens.

Cole ventured to guess that his last words to Thatcher were: “Goodbye and take care.”

Funeral services are planned for Monday, and it is still early for Cole to contend with his legacy as the last remaining Doolittle raider. The mission lasted hours and yet 74 years have followed.

“It means it won’t be long until there are no raiders left,” he said. “I have to go [to the funeral] with the idea that all the raiders will be there in spirit.”

Cole keeps busy at his home in Comfort, where he focuses on the work of The Doolittle Tokyo Raiders’ Association, which helps provide an annual $5,000 scholarship to one student studying aerospace science or engineering. When Cole reflects on legacy, that is a big part of it, he said.

“One of the things I think about is: I always wanted to be an Army Air Corps pilot,” he said, recalling seeing his hero, Doolittle, fly planes before the war. “I was able to live my life living what I wanted to do. A lot of people haven’t been able to do that.”

Horton.Alex@stripes.com
Twitter: @AlexHortonTX
 

David Thatcher, a staff sergeant during the Doolittle Raid, smiles with pride as he listens to a speaker talk about the Doolittle Raiders, April 20, 2013 in Fort Walton Beach, fla. This was the final dinner of the Doolittle Raiders last reunion.
DAVID SALANITRI/U.S. AIR FORCE

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