CINCINNATI — And then there were two.
Although most of the "Doolittle Tokyo Raiders" beat long odds 73 years ago, surviving anti-aircraft fire, crashed planes and vengeful Japanese soldiers, time has been taking its own toll. Since their 70th anniversary reunion at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton, three more Raiders have died, two of them this year.
Retired Lt. Col. Richard "Dick" Cole, 99, and Staff Sgt. David Thatcher, 93, are the last of the original 80 crew men from the 16 B-25 bombers that attacked Japan, boosting American morale and stunning Japan less than five months after its attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II. 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.
Thatcher joined Cole and Lt. Col. Edward Saylor at the museum less than two years ago for a public "Final Toast' cemetery in which they lifted specially engraved silver goblets for the traditional toast of their reunions to those who have gone. He and Cole planned to do so again this weekend at a private gathering, now saluting Hite and Saylor, who died in January at 94, among the fallen.
Their medal will go on display in the diorama about their raid at the museum, where the director, Hudson, has pledged their inspirational story "will live on."