Veterans dropping by the VA health clinic on Missoula’s west side may have been surprised to find the lobby full of people Thursday morning, including both of Montana’s US Senators, and the head of the VA health system in the state, Dr. Kathy Berger.
They were there to formally rename the clinic in honor of one of Montana’s most famous veterans, David J. Thatcher.
Thatcher was one of 80 men known as Doolittle’s Raiders, who, in 1942, flew the first bombing runs on Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Two years ago the Montana native passed away and was buried in Missoula, where he made his home and worked as a mailman after the war.
His son, Jeff Thatcher, recounted his father’s life and military career at the naming ceremony. He said that in spite of 15 of 16 aircraft on the raid led by Jimmy Doolittle being lost, the mission succeeded.
"It succeeded in lifting the morale of our beleaguered nation when it was at an all-time low. And it later provoked Japan into attacking the American naval base at Midway, resulting in a disastrous defeat for Japan, and a turning point in the Pacific war."
David Thatcher volunteered for the dangerous mission and manned the tail gun on a B-25 bomber.
"Even after his plane, the Ruptured Duck, crash-landed off the beach of Nanking island near the coast of China after running low on fuel following the raid, my 20-year-old father kept his cool after being knocked out and regaining consciousness. Although the plane was upside down and the tail section was rapidly filling with water, he made his way out of the plane, swimming through the cold water up to the shore and found his four other crew members up on the beach, all seriously injured."
David Thatcher recounted the story in 2015 in an interview with the American Veterans Center, which was played at Thursday’s ceremony in Missoula.
“I guess I was awarded the Silver Star for taking care of the other members of the crew. Had to be prepared for something like that, but I didn’t think it was necessary. You have to do what you have to do in a situation like that.”
After the ceremony, David Thatcher’s son Jeff said his father was always humble about his heroism.
I asked Thatcher's son what his father would think of the naming and ceremony.
"He’d be embarrassed. In later years he got more comfortable in front of people and speaking about this, but when we were growing up he never spoke about it and in fact my oldest sister, who is here with us today, the first time she actually heard about his role in the Doolittle Raid was when she was in high school and he came and spoke in front of one of her classes. He did not consider himself to be a hero. He always said that the guys that did not make it back, the guys that were with him on the raid, the guys that he served with later on in the war were the real heroes. He would be appreciative of this, but he'd be a little bit embarrassed by the attention and he would definitely be humbled by it."
Along with his son and daughter, David Thatcher’s widow, Dawn, was at the clinic naming ceremony Thursday. The couple was married for more than 70 years. Dawn Thatcher is the last surviving widow of the Doolittle Raiders, only one of the 80 crew members is still alive, 103-year-old Richard Cole.
"These guys were just the meat and potatoes of American civilization. Guys from all numbers of states, all numbers of backgrounds, but they all had something in common, they wanted to do something to help our country at one of its darkest times in our history. And they were selfless -- I've talked to a lot of them over the years and they all felt pretty much the same way -- they were doing their job out of a sense of honor and duty and allegiance to their country. And it was real important to them to do whatever they could to help our country during the really dark time and -- they stepped up.
The newly renamed David J. Thatcher VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic is located on West Palmer Street in Missoula.