Oklahoma Higher Education Campus E-Clips sponsored by the Communicators Council

June 2011

First Honor Flight Ceremony of 2011 Held at Rose State College

 

NEO A&M Lady Norse
Billy Thomas, of Noble, a survivor of the Battle of Iwo Jima, was an honored guest at a recent ceremony for veterans at Rose State College.

A ceremony to honor veterans of World War II, who later flew to the National Memorial in Washington, D.C., was held May 3 at the Rose State College Performing Arts Theatre in Midwest City.

Ninety-seven veterans of World War II were given a 10-minute standing ovation as the soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen, all survivors of the most extensive conflict the world has seen, made their way into the packed auditorium. Gov. Mary Fallin, State Representative Gary Banz and other state and community leaders attended the event.

Youths from area Reserve Officers Training Corps, or ROTC programs, lined the aisles with families, service men and women, community leaders and well-wishers, cheering and clapping for the elderly service members.

Banz, founder of the flights, said the youngest veterans who served in the war are in their 80s, with many of the flight in their 90s.

“It is our opportunity, collectively, to honor those who served in that period of world history,” Banz said. “We need to embrace the sense of urgency to honor those who served so gallantly six decades ago.”

Noting the many youths attending to the veterans, Fallin thanked the elderly men for their service and noted that their example was an inspiration for those following their example.

“What a great day it is in Oklahoma…to see the path that you have set for our young people in service and in duty to our nation,” Fallin told the veterans. “You are the greatest generation of Americans and we appreciate your service to our great nation.”

The climax of the ceremony was characterized by Banz as the “passing of the baton,” as in a relay foot race. Several students from Choctaw High School’s ROTC program took to the stage, there to be sworn into military service by retired Air Force Col. Frank Mahan, one of the WWII veterans traveling with the flight.

The following morning, May 4, the Honor Flight left from Oklahoma City Will Rogers Airport. The veterans toured the World War II Memorial on the Washington Mall.

Honor Flights: An interview with Billy Thomas, 88, Noble, Marine Corps. Retired.

When Billy Thomas enlisted in 1942, the war was just starting for America, but hitting a fever pitch for the rest of the world. Little did the basketball player know he would take part in one of the iconic battles of the war.

“I was in Stillwater, Oklahoma, playin’ basketball with Henry Iba. I had a scholarship. I almost didn’t get it because I got called up. I was in the 45th Division. I served eight months at Fort Sill at Camp Barkley before I got discharged. I got my scholarship and enrolled in Oklahoma A&M.”

In those days, Oklahoma State University was known as Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College, or A&M. Thomas said his scholarship provided him a chance to enter as an officer in Oklahoma’s 45th Division, which at that time was making its way through the earliest campaigns in the war. But then another service made him a better offer.

“The Marines had the best program. ‘You can finish school,’ they said, ‘and then go into the Marine Corps and get your commission,’” Thomas said.

But it didn’t turn out that way. Even as his team was one of the top-ranked in the nation, playing for the NCAA championship, things heated up in the Pacific and he got another call.

“At the end of the second year, they said they were going to send me to Arkansas State,” Thomas said. “I said, ‘You told us we were going to get to stay here. My class won the NCAA Championship. I told them—‘Heck with you. If I hafta go there, I’ll go in as an enlisted man.’”

His decision — play for Oklahoma or go to the Pacific — landed him a slot in one of the newest outfits in the Marines, the paratroopers. Although he made drops during training, a planned invasion of New Guinea was scrapped for the formation of a new Marine division.

“We were supposed to make one drop. We were going to jump with the Army in New Guinea. But the only jumping we did was off the end of the Higgins Boat.”

“Higgins Boats” were the landing craft used throughout the war by the U.S. for its amphibious landings. They’re the ones used at the legendary battle on the beaches of Normandy. They were also used at another legendary battlem Iwo Jima, the very battle Thomas found himself and his fellow 5th Marines in.

He said an initial shock wave of Marines landed in tracked landing craft that crawled up on the beaches like a tank and promptly got stuck.

“We were the first wave after the tractors. They would go up on the sand and were gettin’ hit. They were everywhere. But they (The Japanese) didn’t really open up until we landed.”

A mistake in the chaos of the battle nearly cost the lives of his whole unit. They landed on the wrong beach, below an extinct volcano used as a fortress by the Japanese, Mount Suribachi. Joe Rosenthal's photograph of the raising of the U.S. flag by the Marines would make the battle and its victors famous through history, but at the time, when Thomas was landing, the U.S. Navy was bombarding the hill with everything its battleships could throw.

“We were supposed to land on “Red 2,” but we accidentally landed on “Red 1,” right under Suribachi. We had to move down the beach to Red 2,” Thomas said. “Oh, man. They were still hitting it when we went in. They were bombing it. It was tough bein’ hit almost by our own stuff.”

He said the beach was made of black volcanic sand, like loose asphalt, and blistering hot from the tropical sun. Marines constantly had to flatten themselves against the scorching black sand to avoid enemy fire.

“It was really hot. Have you heard of Iwo chicken? That’s where you dig a whole and put a chicken in it. But we didn’t have a chicken…” Thomas said.

Thomas said movies of the battle don’t capture what it was like. He said the movies are nicer — that it “was tougher than that.” He said the Marines were crowded together such that they were easy targets for the Japanese. Living was a game of chance.

“Mostly you were lucky. That’s the main thing,” he said. “There was so much firing — small arms, artillery, mortar — it was tough.”

His luck almost ran out as his unit took the island’s airfield in an assault. “A mortar got me at the airport on the second day. I got hit in the face and the neck. The reason they evacuated me, they said, was I had a concussion. So I was on a hospital ship.”

The hospital ship was a makeshift troop ship rigged as a sick bay. Bunks were attached together, stacked three high. Thomas was on a middle bunk in a ward of dying men.

“I was in there with the dying guys. I guess they felt I was gonna die, but I didn’t. Everybody around me. The guy under me died, and the guy over me died,” Thomas said.

Thomas was transported to the Schofield Army Hospital in Hawaii, itself a converted barracks. After he recuperated, he found himself readying for the invasion of Japan itself. After Iwo and an even worse battle, Okinawa, the U.S. planners expected casualties as high as a million. Thomas said he was in the first wave.

And then they dropped the Atom bomb on Japan,” he said. “We were sure happy about that.”

Japan surrendered. After about two months in the occupation of the island, Thomas came back to Oklahoma, to his wife and toddler son.

Now, reflecting back, Thomas said he hopes that Americans will “stand up for our country. There’s nothing like it in the world.” He also said the one mistake he made was not to return to college.

“Biggest mistake I ever made,” he said.

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