Doolittle Exhibit

Two Montana Heros Fly in "Jimmy" Doolittle's Game Changing Tokyo Raid April 18, 1942

Within days of suffering stunning losses at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and declaring war on the Empire of Japan, President Roosevelt tasked his top military commanders with the mission of striking the Japanese home islands. With no land bases close enough to Japan from which to launch an air strike, it seemed the only answer would be to launch from an aircraft carrier, if one could get close enough.  The problem was that we had no bombers designed to launch from a carrier.

Hap Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Corps, along with his naval counterparts, became convinced the B-25 Mitchell bomber could be modified to take off from a carrier, although there was no way it could land on one. He enlisted Army Reserve pilot, Lieutenant Colonel James H. (Jimmy) Doolittle, an MIT trained aeronautical engineer, to make design modifications and to train a contingent of volunteer airmen to undertake the mission, with every precaution taken to keep it top secret, even from the men being trained for it.  Not until well underway were the men told their mission was to hit mainland Japan, with their destination an airfield behind enemy lines in Chuchow, China, providing they had enough fuel to get there. Again given the opportunity to back out of the mission, none of the men did.

The mission plan called for an approach to within 400 miles of the target before launching. On April 18, 1942 while still 650 miles from Japan, the USS Hornet was spotted by a Japanese fishing boat.  The launch was immediately ordered despite concerns about fuel and whatever warning the Japanese military might have received. All 16 aircraft launched successfully, all but one hitting their assigned targets, meeting minimal resistance from enemy aircraft and ineffective anti-aircraft fire. Reaching Chuchow, however, proved not so successful. One plane, dangerously low on fuel, diverted to Vladivostock, Russia, and was able to land, but the crew was interned because Russia was not yet at war with Japan. The rest, running out of fuel, crash landed or bailed out over the mainland of China or in the ocean along the seacoast.  Amazingly, of the 80 crew members, only three perished in those landings.  Many more suffered injuries, some life-threatening.  Eight were captured by the Japanese, with three of them later executed, but with the help of the local Chinese people, all the rest eventually made it to safety.  The Chinese paid dearly however, as the Japanese slaughtered an estimated 250,000 civilians while searching for the American aviators.

The results of the raid were all out of proportion to the small amount of actual damage inflicted.  It provided a huge morale boost for the American public and shocked the Japanese military commanders so badly that they split the fleet planned for their invasion of Midway, retaining part for defense of the home islands.  The resulting diminished naval strength combined with the tremendous achievement of U.S. Navy cryptographers in Hawaii breaking the Japanese code and learning the time and place of the attack lead to an American victory at Midway that military historian John Keegan called “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.” It was a blow from which the Japanese Empire never recovered, forcing it into a defensive posture for the remainder of the war.

Participating in the April 18, 1942, Doolittle Tokyo Raid were two young men from Montana, Sergeant Edward J. Saylor and Corporal David Thatcher. Thatcher was an engineer/gunner on plane # 7 “The Ruptured Duck” and Saylor was an engineer/gunner on plane #15 “TNT” aka “Democracy’s Ace in the Hole”. Their stories became intimately intertwined when their planes crashed in the same vicinity in the ocean just off the China coast, after running out of fuel.  Thatcher was credited with getting the other members of his crew to safety after the crash, all of whom were badly injured. Shortly afterward, Saylor’s plane #15 made an easier water landing nearby, and after getting ashore his crew was able to hook up with Thatcher’s crew. One of Saylor’s crew members was Dr. Thomas White, who saved the life of Ted Lawson, pilot of Thatcher’s plane, by amputating Lawson’s gangrenous leg. Ted Lawson later authored the book “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo”, the first classic wartime memoir to come out of WW II. The Oscar winning 1945 film of the same name featured Van Johnson as Lawson, Robert Walker as Thatcher, Stephen McNally as White and Spencer Tracy as Doolittle. Both Thatcher and White were awarded Silver Stars for their life-saving actions in this event.

Our museum store carries DVD’s with video interviews of both Lt. Col. Saylor and Staff Sgt. Thatcher recorded in 2013.

Lieutenant Colonel Saylor was born in 1920 and grew up on a ranch near Brusett, Montana, operated by his father, a Spanish-American War veteran.  Times were tough and in 1939, at age 19, he enlisted in the army, saying he “needed a job”.  Two brothers, John and Dan, also enlisted.  Dan was later killed in Italy and earned a Silver Star for bravery in action.  As a fan of airplanes and a natural mechanic, Ed joined the Army Air Corps as a maintenance technician.  After the war he accepted a commission in the Air Force and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel after 28 years of distinguished service in aircraft maintenance. The Saylor Hangar at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida is named in his honor. In later life he took up a hobby of working with stained glass, and the replica of the B-25 flying through the sun’s rays (symbolic of the Japanese flag at the time) is a gift from him to the Montana Military Museum.  He resided in Enumclaw, Washington, speaking often to local schools and fraternal organizations at the time of his death in 2015.

Staff Sergeant Thatcher was born in 1921 in Carbon County, near Bridger, Montana. He was one of 10 siblings, and his family operated a small farm and ranch on the family homestead.  Later they moved to Stillwater County, and he attended grades 1 thru 12 in Absaroka (ab-SOAR-key). He enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1940 at the age of 19, after the family had moved to Billings to operate a dairy farm.  He had always been interested in flying, but because color-blindness disqualified him for pilot training he had to settle for being a crew member. Three brothers also served during the war, and all returned home safely afterward.  After the Doolittle Raid he served in Africa, also as engineer/gunner on a B-26 bomber.  He left the service in July 1945 after the war ended, marrying his wife Dawn six months later.  They raised five children in Missoula where he worked as a postal delivery person until his retirement.  In 1970 their oldest son was killed while serving in Vietnam as a medevac helicopter pilot. Dave passed away in Missoula in 2016. His graveside service concluded with a flyover by both a B-25 and a B1-B supersonic bomber.

The Doolittle Raiders' Final Toast

Soon after the war ended, in appreciation for the efforts of the men who flew with him on the Tokyo raid and in celebration of their success, (by then General) Doolittle sponsored a reunion of his Raiders. Subsequently, the Raiders decided to hold annual reunions, which became a famous rite of celebration for the Air Force.  General Doolittle provided a bottle of 1896 Cognac to be opened by the last surviving Raider in a final toast. At their reunion in 1959, the city of Tucson presented the Raiders with 80 silver goblets in honor of the 80 men who participated in the raid. Each goblet was engraved twice with the name of one of the Raiders, with the second name engraved upside-down. At each subsequent reunion those who had passed on during the past year were toasted, and their goblet turned upside down.

In 2013 the four surviving Raiders decided to hold their final reunion. It was celebrated at the U.S. Air Force National Museum in Dayton, Ohio on November 9, 2013, and was attended by an estimated 10,000 people. Only three Raiders participated at the reunion ceremony. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Hite, 93, could not attend because of health problems. Hite was one of eight Raiders captured by the Japanese, three of whom were executed and one who died in captivity. The three participating survivors included Lieutenant Colonel Ed Saylor, 93, a Brusett, Montana, native currently living in Enumclaw, Washington; Staff Sergeant David Thatcher, 92, native of Absaroka, Montana and currently living in Missoula, Montana; and Lieutenant Colonel Richard Cole, 98, of Comfort, Texas. Cole was the co-pilot for Doolittle, and he offered the final toast to all the Raiders past and present.

Acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning reminded the audience that at the time of the Doolittle Raid, just after Pearl Harbor and stunning Japanese advances in the Pacific, America was at a low point, and these 80 men showed the nation we were nowhere near defeat. Each one volunteered for the mission despite the high risk involved, from a first time ever launching of a bomber from an aircraft carrier, to potential enemy resistance over Tokyo, to lack of enough fuel to be assured of reaching safe bases in China.

“Challenging the Empire” Original stained glass art by Ed Saylor in 2014, age 93

Eighty silver goblets, each engraved with the name of a Doolittle Raider, donated by the City of Tucson in 1959. Note the three upright goblets representing the surviving Raiders participating in the final toast.

From left: Lieutenant Colonel Edward J. Saylor, Lieutenant Colonel Richard E. Cole, and Staff Sergeant David J. Thatcher at the Raider’s final toast ceremony at Dayton, Ohio, November 9, 2013