ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. - "Quite simply, David Thatcher was the best of us."
That is how Col. John Martin, 28th Operations Group commander, characterized one of the last two Doolittle Raiders -- U.S. Army Air Corps Staff Sgt. David Thatcher -- who was laid to rest June 27 during a special ceremony in Missoula, Montana.
"I had the profound pleasure of meeting him in April 2013 at the Final Raider Reunion at Eglin (Air Force Base, Florida), and then again at the Final Toast in November 2013 at Wright Patterson (Air Force Base, Ohio)," said Martin, a B-1 squadron commander at Ellsworth at the time, who was among a handful of people invited to attend the event. "He and two Doolittle Raiders were also there -- Dick Cole and Ed Saylor. We swapped stories and they seemed to enjoy the time with us. As for me, my head was swimming -- I had merely hoped to be able to shake their hands. I still remember that initial meeting with great fondness."
Ellsworth has a strong tie to the Doolittle Raiders. It is home to three of the four original squadrons that participated in the historic raid: the 34th Bomb Squadron "Thunderbirds," 37th Bomb Squadron "Tigers," and 89th Attack Squadron "Marauders."
A B-1 bomber from Ellsworth conducted a flyover as part of funeral services to honor Thatcher, an engineer gunner on The Ruptured Duck, number seven of the 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers that launched off the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet and headed to the coast of Japan to wreak havoc on the Japanese empire April 18, 1942.
“It is an incredible privilege to honor SSgt Thatcher for the remarkable service he rendered to this nation,” said Col. Gentry Boswell, 28th Bomb Wing commander. “He and his contemporaries are the core of our heritage as Airmen and warriors.”
After dropping its payload, the Ruptured Duck crashed into the China Sea. Thatcher helped save his other four crew members who were seriously hurt and protected them on a beach. He was one of the only recipients of the Silver Star given to a member of the Doolittle Raid.
"He, like the rest of the Raiders, embodied service before self," Martin said. "They exemplified bravery and audacity to be sure. But, I think SSgt Thatcher and the Raiders over time became the model of humility – often saying they were ‘just doing their job’ -- perhaps that's one of the greatest takeaways these members of the Greatest Generation provide."
Martin remarked he often reminds today's aviators at Ellsworth that the Doolittle Raid is nothing short of the cornerstone -- the very foundation -- of their heritage.
“We at the 28th Bomb Wing have a birthright like no other,” Boswell said. “Our heritage starts with the Doolittle Raiders. Their courage and perseverance in war and in their lives that followed as great citizens of their nation leave a challenge for all of us to live up to.”