Two surviving Doolittle Raiders present Congressional Gold Medal to museum

They're in their 90's now, old and bent. But 73 years ago today, their courage torched the skies over Tokyo, sending a message that the United States would stop at nothing to achieve victory.

Of the 80 airmen and pilots commanded by  Lieutenant Colonel James "Jimmy" Doolittle,  that took off from the deck of the USS Hornet on April 18, 1942 bound for a bombing run over Tokyo, just two are still alive. Retired Lt. Col. Richard "Dick" Cole, 99, and Staff Sgt. David Thatcher, 93, will toast their 78 missing comrades at a private event later today, while taking part in a public ceremony at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton.

Associated Press:

They returned to the museum in Ohio for a Saturday event ceremony to present the Raiders' Congressional Gold Medal for display.

"It just happens that way, I guess," Thatcher, of Missoula, Montana, said of being one of the last survivors.

"Something's just got to give," said Cole, a Dayton native who lives in Comfort, Texas.

The museum's director, retired Lt. Gen. Jack Hudson, accepted the medal, the highest honor Congress can give a civilian, for them in Washington on Wednesday. In a video message, Cole said it was an honor to receive the medal "on behalf of 78 fallen Raiders who we proudly served with on that famous raid."

The latest Raider to fall was Lt. Col. Robert Hite, who died March 29 at age 95 at a Nashville, Tennessee, nursing facility. Hite was also the last of the eight Raiders who were captured by Japanese soldiers. Three were executed and a fourth died in captivity. Three other Raiders were killed soon after the bombing run, as most crash-landed or had to ditch.

Cole was the co-pilot for their mission's leader, James "Jimmy" Doolittle, in plane No. 1 of the 16. Thatcher was engineer-gunner aboard the 7th plane, nicknamed "The Ruptured Duck," whose crew's crash-landing and evasion of Japanese troops in China was depicted in the movie "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo."

Thatcher, who was played by Robert Walker in the movie while Spencer Tracy portrayed Doolittle, chuckled as he recounted how the Raiders had given little thought at the time of the raid about earning a place in history.

"We figured it was just another bombing mission," he said in a phone interview from his home this week.

In the years afterward, though, he said, they realized: "It was an important event in World War II."

Thatcher, who said he uses a cane and walker but otherwise is "getting around OK," was looking forward to weekend events including reunions with family members of the other Raiders to share stories and remembrances.

"You learn something new every time," Thatcher said.

Their specially outfitted B-25's were not designed for carrier takeoffs, but President Roosevelt insisted that the raid, which had no tactical significance, be carried out for the morale of the military and civilians at home. The effect of the raid on the Japanese was substantial. Not only was it a huge shock to the Japanese people, but thanks to our codebreakers who had cracked one of the imperial navy cyphers, we learned that the Japanese had advanced their plans for attacking Port Moseby, New Guinea, and eventually Midway Island. The resulting two naval battles at Coral Sea and the decisive Midway engagement turned the tide of war in the Pacific.

One little known fact: Japanese retaliation against the Chinese, who helped Doolittle Raiders evade capture, was stunningly brutal. More than a quarter million Chinese were killed by Japanese soldiers looking for the Raiders and retaliating for townsfolk helping them.

That generosity shown by the Chinese would trigger a horrific retaliation by the Japanese that claimed an estimated quarter-million lives and would prompt comparisons to the 1937-38 Rape of Nanking. American military authorities, cognizant that a raid on Tokyo would result in a vicious counterattack upon free China, saw the mission through regardless, even keeping the operation a secret from their Pacific theater allies. This chapter of the Doolittle Raid has largely gone unreported—until now.

Long-forgotten missionary records discovered in the archives of DePaul University for the first time shed important new light on the extent to which the Chinese suffered in the aftermath of the Doolittle raid.

In the moments after the attack on Tokyo, Japanese leaders fumed over the raid, which had revealed China’s coastal provinces as a dangerous blind spot in the defense of the homeland. American aircraft carriers not only could launch surprise attacks from the seas and land safely in China but could possibly even fly bombers directly from Chinese airfields to attack Japan. The Japanese military ordered an immediate campaign against strategically important airfields, issuing an operational plan in late April, just days after the Doolittle raid.

Of the 80 pilots and crew, 69 were eventually rescued by the Chinese. Eight were captured by the Japanese and 3 were executed for "war crimes." Four of the captured crew members were eventually freed by American forces. 

Now, there are only two. The World War II generation is rapidly receding into history but exploits like the Doolittle Raid will never be forgotten as long as courage and fortitude are celebrated in America.

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