Thirty years as clerk and then letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service was probably enough excitement for Thatcher. Because during World War II, Sgt. Thatcher volunteered for a secret mission; all the volunteers were told was it was going to be “extremely hazardous.” In all, 79 men from the 17th Bomb Group, chosen because they had the most experience with the new B-25 medium bombers, volunteered to be led by Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle of the United States Army Air Forces, a well-known military test pilot. The mission: an air raid on Tokyo, Japan, in retaliation for the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor just months before. Japan thought itself invulnerable to U.S. attack since there were no bases close enough to support American bombers. Doolittle planned to shake Japan’s confidence. The bomber modifications and special training for Doolittle’s 79 men took three months. The plan: bomb Tokyo and land in China afterward; the bombers could take off from an aircraft carrier (the USS Hornet (CV-8), which was later sunk), but couldn’t land there. On April 18, 1942, 16 B-25B medium bombers launched from the Hornet — without fighter escorts: Japan was too far out of their range. Thatcher, just 20 years old, was the tail gunner/engineer of the seventh plane. All of the planes made it to their targets, and all escaped out of Japanese airspace. But all crash-landed: one in the USSR, and 15 in China.
Low on fuel, Thatcher’s pilot, Lt. Ted Lawson, couldn’t quite make land: he splashed into 15 feet of water off a Chinese beach. Everyone on the plane was seriously injured — except Thatcher, who took it upon himself to rescue his four crewmates, getting them to the beach and convincing Chinese guerrillas to take them to safety, and keeping them hidden from Japanese patrols who had been alerted to look for the airmen. In all, 77 of the 80 men survived the mission. (Eight others were captured and of those, three were executed by the Japanese and one died in captivity.) Doolittle thought that losing all of his aircraft would result in his court martial, but instead he was awarded the Medal of Honor and promoted to Brigadier General. Thatcher was awarded the Silver Star for helping his crewmates escape, and for tending to their wounds. Lt. Lawson went on to write one of the seminal books on the raid, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, which was made into an Academy Award-winning film. After suffering a stroke on Father’s Day, Thatcher, 94, died on June 22, leaving Doolittle’s co-pilot, Richard Cole, 100, as the sole survivor of the raid.
Note: Despite his age, Cole attended Thatcher’s funeral June 27 in Montana; Cole lives in Texas. Thatcher’s funeral received full military honors, including a flyby by a B-25.