Col. James Doolittle led a daring raid of sixteen B-25 bombers which took off from an aircraft carrier on April 18, 1942 and bombed several Japanese cities. Two of the 80 “Raiders” were Montanans, David Thatcher of Billings and Edward Saylor of Brusett. Both survived the raid and the subsequent crash landings in China and returned to Montana as heroes. Thatcher, a modest man who saved the lives of the other four members of his crew, suddenly found himself a celebrity. “When we were first told that the ‘special mission’ was to be, I just thought it would be a lot of fun, but I honestly never expected to come back.”
After a harrowing take-off from the deck of the USS Hornet, Thatcher watched as his B-25, piloted by Lt. Ted Lawson, skimmed over the ocean. They were flying so low that Japanese swimmers waved as they passed over the beach and headed for their target, the Nippon machinery works and steel factory. “As we let go our first load I saw a great column of black smoke and debris shoot into the air… The antiaircraft fire was pretty heavy. It jarred the plane around it was so close, but I’m sure we weren’t hit.” Flying on, their B-25 eventually ran short of fuel and crashed in the ocean just short of the China coast. All five members of the crew made it to shore, but except for Thatcher they were all badly injured. The young corporal from Billings performed first aid on the four officers and found shelter for them.
Chinese guerrillas helped the fliers elude the Japanese patrols sent to find them, and all of the crew eventually reached safety, but Lawson’s leg was so badly infected that it had to be amputated along the way. Lawson wrote down his experiences in the best-selling, “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” which was soon made into a major Hollywood film starring Spencer Tracy and Robert Mitchum. Robert Walker played the part of David Thatcher, the teenaged flier from Billings. Thatcher won a Silver Star for his actions, and according to an official War Department release, “All this plane’s crew were either saved from capture or
death as a result of Corporal Thatcher’s initiative and courage in assuming responsibility and tending the wounds himself day and night and arranging for the transportation of his companions.” Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, chief of the Army Air Forces, pinned the Distinguished Flying Cross on Thatcher and Sgt. Edward Saylor of Brusett in Washington D.C., before the two men returned to Montana in July. Edward Saylor received a warm welcome as the guest of honor at a Heroes Day parade and war bond rally at Dornblaser Field in Missoula, while 1,000 people watched from the lawn of the Billings courthouse as the Silver Star was pinned on Thatcher. “Real heroes, it seems, are always modest,” said
the Billings Gazette. “For the uncrowned champion of the Modest Heroes League, we raise to nominate Sergeant David J. Thatcher, late of Shangri-la and Tokyo.” Thatcher replied that “It’s funny to see my name in the paper. We saw plenty of action over Japan, all right,” but added that he would like to, “go over again.” After the war Thatcher became a postman in Missoula. He attended the annual Doolittle Raiders reunion until the last one in 2013, attended only by Thatcher, Saylor, and Lt. Col. Richard Cole.