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Did You Know Jack?

Story ID:403
Written by:Gail Lee Martin (bio, contact, other stories)
Organization:Kansas Authors Club
Story type:Local History
Location:El Dorado Kansas USA
Year:1940
Person:Jack Thomas, WWII Flying Ace
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Did You Know Jack?

Ever since that fateful day of September 11, 2001, Americans across the continent have become fervent in showing their patriotism. El Dorado residents were among the very first to proudly show the red, white, and blue colors everywhere. In yards, on porches, in windows and on lapels of both men and women, but most noticeable were the flags on every conceivable type of vehicle on the streets and highways. Stores soon sold out of anything that faintly resembled the red, white and blue colors of our nation’s flag to show our pride in our country.

Now five years later El Dorado’s Celebration of Freedom has built a memorial on the front lawn of the Butler County Courthouse to all Butler County’s veterans. Even El Dorado’s own small-scale Statute of Liberty, west of the memorial, has been refurbished. Flags are still flying everywhere. Remember we did the same thing years ago when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor during World War Two.

Over 60 years ago El Dorado residents were of the same mind-set when their most famous war hero, Jack Thomas, came home on leave in December 1943. A grand celebration occurred with crowds of people who knew Jack and many who just wanted to know Jack. Flags were waving everywhere as Kansas Governor Andrew Schoeppel presented Jack with a Gallant Chronograph Aviation watch from the community of El Dorado that showed their pride in this home town boy’s flying record.

Captain Jack Thomas received many decorations during his tour of duty as a marine flier, going on to become one of America’s top aces. He is credited with shooting down 18 1/2 Japanese planes, one of the highest scores of the entire conflict of World War Two. There are hundreds of news releases and articles about Jack and many El Dorado residents feel like they knew Jack Thomas.

But did they really know Jack?

Jack must have came to El Dorado sometime after graduating from the eight grade June first 1934 in Boy River, Minnesota. In 1935 when Jack was fifteen he lived with his family, Edgar J. and Vera Thomas, right in the center of downtown El Dorado at 211 W. First Avenue. Jack’s older brother, Edgar worked at the Thomas Service Station that Edgar Sr. owned on the corner of the block at 201 West First Avenue.

Jack was in the first class graduating from the new high school building in the 500 block of West Central, in May 1938. In the same building Jack attended junior college and graduated May 1941. He only had to go around the block from home to get his high school and junior college class pictures taken at C. Otis Boston’s Studio at 127 West Central.

His best friend and high school classmate was Renden Eastham, better known by all as “Blue.” Some others in his class who knew Jack were Leo McHatten, John K. Fisher and Hoyt Smith. Hoyt remembered being Jack’s friend and classmate through high school and junior college. In a letter Hoyt wrote in 1996 to Mrs. Barbara H. Desforges, a cousin of Jack’s, he regretfully related that he didn’t get into the junior college pilot training program like Jack because his eyesight wasn’t 20/20. He did hang out at the airfield south of town with all the guys.

The one who probably knew him best was his brother, Edgar, who said everyone always liked Jack. His parents named Jack, Wilbur Jackson Thomas. He was blonde, blue eyed, small of stature and soft-spoken. Because of his size he never excelled at sports and was always looking for other avenues that he could excel in.

In 1941 while attending his second year at the local Junior College, Jack found his place to dream. With World War II escalating in 1939 the U. S. Government set up a program to instruct aeronautics to eighteen to twenty-five-year old men and women enrolled in junior colleges nation-wide. Under the auspices of the Civil Aeronautics Administration the Civilian Pilot Training program began. Its aim was to build up a reserve of private flyers, who would be potential military pilots. The government footed the bill of about $700 per student to cover medical examinations, insurance and other expenses that occurred in training these young people in thirty-five to fifty hours of flight training and seventy-two hours of ground schooling.

Twenty-four year old Adeline Farrell was one of the women who signed up for the course. She said “the students trained in small groups and for every ten male students there could be one woman.” Adeline went on and took more training to teach other pilots in this exciting new field. She probably knew Jack, as aviation-minded people in the area were a small group.

After a childhood pastime of collecting model airplanes, Jack probably was one of first thirty students who signed up for the course when it was offered. The local program was entrusted to Mr. Erman White, who served as flight instructor and Virgil Bayne and Frank Morgan, ground school instructors. In 1940 the local airport was three miles south of El Dorado on the West Side of US 54 highway and Erman White had his flying school there. From this small beginning I’m certain Wilbur Jack Thomas surpassed the government’s preconceived idea of the pilot training program.

The current airport lies three miles south of El Dorado, on the East Side of US 54 highway. The city of El Dorado bought land for this municipal airport from John Falkenberg in July 1941

Jack graduated from Junior College and the flight school then received his private pilot’s license in May 1941. That fall he traveled to the US Naval Recruiting office in Kansas City, Kansas and enlisted in the Reserves on the18th of September 1941.

Aviation Cadet Thomas began his first flight training as a student naval aviator in a N2S-3 biplane trainer at the naval Air Station at Corpus Christi, Texas on March 16th, 1942. As an Aviation Cadet, Jack attended an accelerated flight training program that involved a combination of monoplane trainers like the Vultee SNV-1, the Curtiss SNC-1 and the North American SNJ-3. Jack soon knew the instructors, the other pilots and of course the airplanes and they all knew him.

Aviation Cadet Thomas was advanced to Second Lieutenant status on August 21st, 1942. Rank was never important to Jack, his main goal was flying and he was having a grand time doing that. The very next month he received the Instrument Pilot Rating No. 2605 from the Navy after he completed a course bringing his total flying time to 232.5 hours. A couple of months later “Gus” Thomas, as his friends were calling him, reported to the Naval Air Station in Miami, Florida for advanced flight training. This seemed to be just flights in the same type of planes. His last flight at Miami was on the 2nd of November according to his logbook.

Shortly after December the 12th, Jack was flying with a Marine Scout Bombing Squadron. The war records suggest that the training was a Marine Corps MCAS Ewa in Hawaii. Here Jack racked up another forty-six hours dive bombing practice.

On January 4th, 1943 he made his last training flight and his logbook was closed out. It was only two days later that he made his first flight in the Grumman F4F Wildcat, the Corps’ front-line fighter. I’m sure Jack felt right at home in the Wildcat. He occasionally flew as a tow pilot in a photoreconnaissance variant of the Wildcat. As a tow pilot, he pulled a sleeve banner behind his plane so his squadron mates could practice firing at it. A true test of nerves, but one that would prepare Jack for dodging the Japs. He took his turn at target practice too. Each pilot had different colored paint bullets so they could judge how accurate they were. A forerunner of the paint games the youths are playing today?

On February 20th, 1943 Jack ferried his assigned F4F-4, BuNo12037, over to NAVAL AIR STATION Peal Harbor on Ford Island where aircraft and pilots were loaded aboard USS Nassau which would transport them to the South Pacific. There the war would begin for Jack. After twelve days at sea all the aircrafts, with their individual pilots, were catapulted off the Nassau. Flying for two and half-hours they landed at “Buttons” at Turtle Bay on Espiritu Santo Island. At that time Buttons was the Marines’ main base in the New Hebrides.

Jack was getting familiar with many types of planes and on March 12th, 1943 he was introduced to a new fighter, the Vought F4U-1 Corsair as it came into service for the first time. This plane was larger than the Wildcats and not suitable on aircraft carriers. The Corsairs could obtain tremendous speed from their 2,000 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800-8 engines. About this time Jack was transferred to the Marine Fighting Squadron 213 referred to as the VMF-213. He stayed with this group as a fighter pilot to the finish of his combat career in 1945. During this time he flew the F4F-4’s. They were a heavier plane that had folding wings to store better on the aircraft carriers and had bullet proof windshields. May 6th 1943 Jack test flew one of the Corsairs’ to a remarkable altitude of 35,000 feet.

His squadron suffered some early confusion in the switchover to Corsairs then they started to operate from Henderson Field on April 1. Their first job was to learn the geography of the Solomons: the islands, the location of enemy troop concentrations, the airstrips, etc. Typical missions involved escorting bombers up to Bougainville, a Jap stronghold in mid1943.

Their CO, Major Britt, drilled them for months on the importance of sticking together in combat. Sometimes Thomas and the pilots had to work hard at this command. Usually their planes had engines overdue for overhauls and had a disconcerting tendency to flood the carburetor and cut out, more than likely right over their objective.

After only nine training flights Jack and his squadron moved up to Guadalcanal and began flying combat missions under Major H. Britt, Jr.’s command on April 4th. Flying regular missions, sometimes two in the same day, really added many more hours to Jack’s flight log. It was April 11th that Jack flew the first of 24 missions on this tour of duty. He had already accumulated 427 hours during his first year in the military.

At the end of his first tour of duty Jack and his fellow squadron mates were flown to Sydney, Australia for 6 weeks of R & R or rest and recuperation. This flight took seventeen and a half-hours in a Douglas R4D. Can’t you just imagine those pilots impatience with such a slow way to travel and they weren’t doing the piloting?

On June 20th, 1943 First Lieutenant Thomas ferried an F4U-1 BuNo. 02453 in a formations of eight more pilots, led by Major Gregory Weissenberger to the “Bevy” airstrip on Guadalcanal. This took them nearly four hours to fly. From here on this squadron NMF-213, with 21 pilots, flew support of landings of ground troops in New Georgia. This was a well-known operation we all remember as Operation Toenails under the overall command of Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, aptly called “Bull.”

It was on this second combat tour that the squadron dubbed themselves “The Hellhawks” after watching the native hawks that flew over Guadalcanal. At this time those 21 pilots began to stand out as Marine fighter pilots, especially Gus Thomas.

On Jack’s second tour of duty he took a refresher course in ‘tactics and gunnery’ at “Buttons.” He had been promoted to First Lieutenant in May. Jack Thomas’s exploits in the air are widely documented and I will just state he took advantage of every opportunity that came his way to defeat the enemy. He was referred to as a sharp-eyed wingman, who defended his division leader diligently. In his second tour he did six missions over Malaita and Segi in the New Georgias as Major Weissenberger’s wingman, a most enviable position. Jack took on the nickname “tailend charley” during these flights.

Other accounts describe him as having all the traits of a successful fighter pilot. He had a hunter’s sense of instantly taking in his surroundings and assessing the situation. At that time he became an aggressive, risk-taking spirit with unmatched skills in gunnery.

Jack saw many of his friends shot down or plunge into the ocean because of engine failure or just plain running out of gas. The VMF-213 War Diary reports that Major Britt Jr., Jack's close friend was killed in action on April 13th, 1943.

From June 17th through July 28th the Hellhawks lost three pilots killed in accidents, three missing in action and four through medical evacuations, giving them a tour casualty rate of 48%. Seven corsairs were lost due to weather, darkness or engine failure and seven more were shot down.

Jack was one of the pilots that ran out of gas. He had been airborne for six hours and twenty-five minutes but managed to land aboard the carrier USS Enterprise. He was completely out of gas but landed without the aid of any signal officer. He just ran out of time. But Sunday July 11th when his engine lost all the oil and quit on him, he went down with his plane barely managing to get his lifeboat open and clear.

The pilots usually carried a ‘KaBar’ knife strapped to the calf of one leg to be handy to cut away straps or parachute lines in such a situation. Jack may have needed his this time. The following Tuesday he was reported safe at Segi. Jack was returned to his squadron the next day in time to make a flight in the afternoon.

While on Guadalcanal between flights and during 'take cover' warnings the men sometimes played baseball or even pitched horseshoes. Now and then they were fortunate to have a movie to watch. Lieutenant Winnia wrote in his journal that they watched Gary Cooper in “Reunion in France” and “Meet John Doe.” Earlier Winnia wrote “Thomas came down with malaria today” and on the 23rd when the last movie was shown, he wrote “Our Thomas still in sick bay.” Most of the squadron’s personnel came down with this tropical disease sometime or even time after time. There usually was a corpsman standing at the head of the chow line dispensing quinine tablets.

Much of their lives while in the Solomons were spent in sandwiching activities between the daily rain showers. Lieutenant Winnia recorded in his daily journal March 24th, 1943; “It rained all day except six minutes by the clock. We sat around shooting the bull, writing letters home to family, listening to the rain and dodging occasional streams of water when the tent roof gives way.” When it wasn’t raining the hot tropical sun baked them. They had to put up with the ever-present mud, the mosquitoes, the bats and nightly air raids. About the only radio programs that came in clear was Radio Tokyo. Every program they heard was so full of lies it made the marines learn new cuss words.
But did they really know Jack?

The men who were survivors with him on Guadalcanal certainly got to know him, as most El Doradoians didn’t. In May Jack was promoted to 1st.Lieutenant. The whole squadron had their picture taken. In the picture with Jack were James Cupp, George Weissenberger, Milton Norwood Vedder, Wade Britt Edward, Charles C. Winnia, Oliver Shaw and John Luther Morgan in February 13th, 1943 at Ewa, Hawaii, shortly before their squadron deployed for Guadalcanal by way of Espiritu Santo.

By June 30th 1943 Jack was considered to be one of the most accomplished fighter pilots and he certainly had reason to celebrated when he shot down four Japanese Zero that day. Again the squadron were together for a photo shoot in late October 1943. But many of the pilots in the first picture had been lost during the eight months. Shortly after the last photo was taken 1st Lt. Vedder died in a New Zealand hospital of malaria. By the time Jack went home in December the same year he had scored 16.5 hits in just five engagements.

The trip home December 9th 1943 mentioned at the beginning that was celebrated by the whole town of El Dorado, came about when Jack’s squadron returned to the US for reorganization and training. On February 19th 1944 Jack became Captain Wilbur Jack Thomas. Around this time Jack met Adele Kelly and they were married Easter Sunday 1944 in Glendale, California. They had six months together before Jack was shipped out on his third tour of duty.

In August 1944 John Luther Morgan and Thomas had a sorrowful flight when they flew two of the seventeen Corsair fighter planes in escort to the transport carrying the body of their friend ‘Bud’. Captain Edward Shaw he was killed when the plane he was testing failed to come out of a power dive.

Jack's squadron headed back to the war September 18th 1944 on board the Ticonderoga. They arrived at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on September 24th. There they were assigned to the USS Essex along with the VMF-124 squadron. At that time there were fifty-four pilots, four ground officers, and one hundred and twenty enlisted men in the two squadrons. Jack’s squadron’s new commander was Major David E. Marshall. Both squadrons participated in action against Lingayen, Luzon, Formosa, Tokyo, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.

This group of men from all walks of life became very well known to each other. In other words they probably all knew Jack. Some called him Gopher Gus because of the Disney cartoon character he had painted on his plane. On his plane he also painted the Japanese emblem of the “rising sun” to tally each plane he shot down. This was the way Jack kept score but everyone who saw them knew they were badges of bravery.

During his third tour of duty on board the carrier Essax, Jack scored two more kills in a mission over Tokyo on February 16th 1945. Marine Corps pilots and air crewmen shot down 2,345 Japanese aircraft during the war. The 125 official Marine Aces accounted for 976 of the enemy aircraft and Captain Wilbur Jack Thomas did more than his share by shooting down a grand total of 18 1/2 Jap planes.

The war was all but over when Jack’s squadron returned to the United States sometime in early 1945. Jack Thomas joined a group for the several months flying in aerial shows. He did aerobatics in the F7F Tigercat twin engine plane around the country under the command of Lieutenant Willard Eder and Colonel Robert Limberg.

Then the unthinkable happened.

In January 28, 1947 Jack was ferrying a plane from the Naval Air Station North Island to the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, California. His passenger was Master Sergeant Morgan W. Hopwood. They encountered a violent storm and crashed into Saddleback Peak thirteen miles East of El Toro. Both were killed.

Jack probably would have had it no other way. When Jack was flying he thought he was really was somebody! Not just a blonde, blue eyed, small of stature, soft spoken boy from a small town in Kansas. In his all too short twenty-seven years, Jack certainly packed his life with adventures very few can equal.

For six exciting years he had found something he could excel in. That he became a famous flying ace in the Marines was because when he was flying, his small stature didn’t matter. His plane made him a Paul Bunyon in the air.

The many, many people who knew him as Jack, Captain Jack, Tailend Charley, Gopher Gus or just plain Gus seemed to like Jack, as his brother said they did.

Oh how I wish I had known Jack!