The spirit of the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders—and the rumble of a North American B-25 Mitchell bomber’s radial engines—reverberated through AOPA’s National Aviation Community Center at Maryland's Frederick Municipal Airport Nov. 6.
Larry Kelley, owner of the B-25J Panchito, brought the airplane from its Georgetown, Delaware, base to take Doolittle Tokyo Raiders family members and Chinese diplomats for flights in the meticulously restored World War II bomber, as a gift from the Raiders.
Lt. Col. Dick Cole, who turned 101 in September, is the last surviving Raider. He was Lt. Col. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle’s co-pilot on the first of 16 B-25s to take off from the USS Hornet on April 18, 1942, to bomb the Japanese mainland. The secret raid rattled the Japanese and boosted American morale. Following the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders’ final reunion in 2013, Cole has remained active in their affairs and planned to attend the Sunday events, but was tired following several consecutive nights of receptions.
Jeff Thatcher traveled from Little Rock, Arkansas, for a flight. He is the son of David Thatcher, flight engineer and gunner for Crew No. 7, which flew The Ruptured Duck. (Ted Lawson, the aircraft’s pilot, was the author of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, the story of his participation in the raid.)
In September 2015, Thatcher went to China for the country’s celebration of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II. While there he made a side trip to the site where The Ruptured Duck crashed in the East China Sea, just off the Chinese coast. “I literally followed my dad’s footsteps after his plane crashed off Nantien Island,” Thatcher said. “My father was basically the one who saved their lives. Dad was in the back—he was knocked out, but he came to.” David Thatcher, who avoided serious injury, crawled out and helped his four crewmates; his actions figure prominently in Lawson’s book. Thatcher died in Missoula, Montana, June 22 at the age of 94.
The Japanese took the larger pieces of The Ruptured Duck to Tokyo for propaganda purposes, said Thatcher, who while in China acquired three smaller pieces from the airplane. “Our Chinese guide got a pretty substantial piece,” which appears to include the base of a cylinder; he also has what he believes to be a fire suppression tube, and an oval-shaped piece of aluminum that he had hoped to identify Sunday. “Larry thought it was a cover near the rudder pedal,” but a match could not be located in Panchito’s cockpit.
Melinda Liu, daughter of Tung-Sheng Liu, who helped rescue some of the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders and later became an honorary member of the Doolittle Raider Association, joined Thatcher’s family on a flight in Panchito. Liu, a young man at the time, was instrumental in helping the members of Crew No. 2 get to Chongqing safely. After the crew crashed in China, the men were taken to a hotel, and locals asked Liu if he knew English and if he could interpret for them. Liu was taken to a little hotel room where he saw five disheveled Americans who had just survived an emergency landing, his daughter explained. Because of the language barrier, the situation was tense in the hotel room until Liu could facilitate communication and clear up some misunderstandings. He was able to help make sure the men were comfortable and fed, and then stayed with them for more than two weeks, serving as their guide and interpreter as they traversed the country to Chongqing before parting ways.
Later, Liu moved to the United States and reconnected with the Raiders during a reunion. He and Travis Hoover, the pilot of Crew No. 2, also reunited, and Hoover “became his best friend in the U.S.,” his daughter said. Liu, who became an aeronautical engineer and helped to develop the C-5 military transport aircraft, died in 2009 in California.
Subsequent flights carried Chinese diplomats aloft in Panchito. As soon as the B-25’s engines shut down and the exit ladder dropped, laughter and squeals could be heard before they disembarked after their flight, which honored the connection and friendship shown between the United States and China during World War II.
Kelley flew the diplomats over central Maryland and let some of them take the controls in the air for their first experience piloting an aircraft. Afterward, Kelley presented them with a model of Panchito and explained the history of the original aircraft bearing the Panchito emblem in the 396th Bomb Squadron.
The flights were a gift from the Raiders and their families, Kelley said, explaining that a quarter million Chinese lost their lives at the hands of the Japanese because of the brave acts of a few to save the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders after they crashed from fuel exhaustion in China.
The Chinese diplomats said it’s “a very important history” that many young people don’t remember, and that “Chinese and American people should remember this great event,” particularly the friendship and cooperation between the two countries.