100th Anniversary of Dad's birth

Today, April 22, 2024, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Clinton Eaton Thomas, Jr.

"We" is me, my sister Barbara, and my two brothers, Wayne, and Pat, his four children.  "We" also includes, of course, all of Dad's friends and family.

The second of ten children, and the oldest boy, Dad was the son of Clinton Eaton Thomas Senior and Mary Louise (Seal) Thomas. 

 

He was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, but most of his life he was raised in the suburbs of Washington DC along with three brothers (Jimmy, Tommy, and Charlie) and six sisters (Mary Louise, Marguerite, Matilda, Penelope, Susan, and Sarah).  Early in his life the family enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle, made possible by his father's successful photography business.


To his siblings, Dad was known as "Junior".  To his nieces and nephews, he was "Uncle Junior".  To his friends and co-workers, he was "Tommy".  He was never "Clinton" or "Clint".

As more children arrived, and jobs evaporated during the Great Depression, the family encountered difficult times.  Things got so bad that, in his teen years, Dad helped support the family by working odd jobs before and after school.

Dad joined the United States Marine Corps on November 13, 1942, at the age of 18 and went immediately into active service in WWII.  He served in the 4th Marine division, fighting in some of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific Theater -- including the islands of Roi-Namur, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima.  

 

In Maui, Hawai'i, he attended training to drive the amphibious landing craft.  After that, his principal assignment was using the "Ducks" to shuttle soldiers from the Navy ships to shore. He once told me that he felt that he was the main target of the enemy because he was delivering serious trouble for them, and they wanted to take him out first. 

The horror that the Marines endured in those days is well chronicled in print and film.  Hand-to-hand combat with an enemy that had years to prepare for an assault, and who refused to surrender, posed an enormous challenge.  On Iwo Jima alone, American casualties mounted to 6,821 killed and 19,207 wounded against Japanese casualties of well over 20,000 killed and only 1,083 prisoners taken.

Dad rose to the rank of Corporal and was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps on October 25, 1945 -- after serving just 19 days short of three years, and about three months after the Atomic Bombings on Japan. 

Six days later, Dad was back at home in Riverdale, Maryland attending a Halloween party.


During our youth, Dad didn't talk to us very much about his negative experiences as a Marine, but his pride in having served his country as a member of the Corps was always evident.  One of his favorite memories was shared more than once as he talked fondly about how they were known as the "Maui Marines", due to their time at the Maui Amphibious Training Center in Kama`ole. 

While Dad was at war, his sister Marguerite was employed in a factory producing machine gun parts for US bombers.  She met a nice woman from South Carolina, Helen Ruth Brakefield.  They became best friends.


It wasn't long before Marguerite introduced her brother to her friend, and a lasting romance quickly formed.   


 Soon, Tommy and Helen decided to get married.  They remained husband and wife their entire lives.

Dad and Mom lived a traditional post-war life -- before long, four children arrived to fill one of the mass-produced 1950's homes in suburban Maryland.  


Economics and family obligations made it impossible for Dad to take advantage of the "GI Bill" to secure a higher education degree or skilled training in one of the trades.  Lacking these advantages, Dad's career was relegated to lower-paying jobs.  To make ends meet, he frequently worked a part-time job to supplement his full-time pay.  I don't remember Dad taking a single day of sick leave his entire life.

He found his calling working as a clerk in food stores, mostly for A&P.  He was a stock clerk for a time as well as working the  frozen food aisle, but his favorite assignment was in the produce department.  He was popular with fellow employees and was good natured about his station in life in his union job.

 

In December 1952 another hurdle was thrown Dad's way.  On December 6, 1952, Dad was driving his 1938 Hudson westbound on Greenbelt Road through a cold, rainy night.  As he approached Rhode Island Avenue, he changed lanes from the left lane to the right, preparing to turn right to go to our house in College Park. Unfortunately, the right lane was, at that instant, occupied by the 1941 Chevy being driven by Albert Myers of Greenbelt, Maryland. The cars collided destroying both.  Because Dad's car came to rest on its right side, the Fire and Rescue guys had to cut a hole in the top of Dad's car to get him out of the twisted wreckage. Dad was taken to Leland Memorial Hospital.  I remember that one of our Aunt's had to come take care of us kids for a few days while Mom attended to Dad.  It is a miracle that he wasn't killed, but he lost partial sight in his right eye.  He would suffer from double vision for the remainder of his life. Although Dad must have driven past the scene of that crash a million times -- he never, ever, mentioned it.

There wasn't much time or money for hobbies or vacations.  Dad was able to find joy in his favorite TV shows and relax at home.  He loved driving through the Government Farms in Beltsville on Sunday afternoons and stopping at the University of Maryland Dairy for ice cream. He enjoyed the West Virginia and Virginia countryside, and in his 50's the family owned a weekend cabin in the Massanutten area of the Blue Ridge Mountains. 


 Dad was a "MOPAR" man.  The first car I remember (after the Hudson), was a 1952 Dodge with the fluid drive clutch.  It was a 2-door. I would stand up on the floor in the back seat behind Dad to watch him drive.  The shifting of gears was a mystery to me.

 


His next car was a classic 1957 Dodge with the push-button automatic transmission, huge fins, and spinner hubcaps.  This is the car that Barbara and I used to get our driver's licenses.   


The Dodge was followed by a 1962 Plymouth Fury (sorry no photo) -- which was my favorite of his cars.  For the longest time he couldn't bring himself to buy a Japanese car, but late in his life he finally bought a Toyota Camry, and he loved it.

There are many stories that could be told about happy times with Dad.  My brother, Pat, and I, both pilots, took Dad up in small airplanes.  Dad's first flight with Pat, shortly after Pat got his pilot's license, was humorous.  Pat taxied out to the run up area at the College Park Airport, and, as trained, methodically went through the printed check list in the Pilot's logbook.  Dad watched quietly and then announced, "If you need to read the manual to fly this thing, I want to get out!"  The flight went fine. Pat shared with me the best flight of all -- when they flew in the summer to Annapolis to get a bushel of Maryland Crabs, then flew home to eat them!  When I moved to San Diego in 1989, Dad flew with me over Camp Pendleton and Oceanside, places he remembered from long ago.


Three associations brought Dad pride and joy: the USMC; his favorite NFL team -- the Washington Redskins; and his Union -- the Retail Clerks; in that order! 

Dad helped support his Mom throughout her life.  When she passed, there was a Thomas family reunion. It was the only occasion when I had seen all my Thomas aunts and uncles at the same time.

 


Tension between fathers and sons is not uncommon. I would be less than truthful if I failed to say that Dad and I didn't have the best relationship in my teen and college years. In 1976, in my early twenties, I moved to California -- a major life event for both of us.  That fall, following a tragedy experienced by a USC friend, I had an epiphany regarding all that my Dad had endured, leading me to send a hand-written letter to him.  I told him how much I appreciated all that he had done for his mother and siblings, and our family. I let him know that his perseverance in overcoming many obstacles was an inspiration to me.  

That letter changed our relationship for the better.  In the next few years, we enjoyed some of the best times of our lives.  One memorable trip included flying Dad and Mom to California, and then I joined them for a trip to Maui.  Dad had saved a few post cards he collected during the war years, each of which had a scene of the Maui countryside.  During our trip we had great fun driving all around the island in search of the places depicted on the post cards -- and in a few cases we discovered them!  We took "before" and "after" photos with Dad and Mom posing for the shot. Best of all, we visited "Camp Maui" near the town of Ha`ikÅ« on the slopes of Haleakalā.  Here we found plaques and a monument commemorating the 4th Marine Division -- I marveled at how much this "homecoming" meant to him.


My connections in the college sports world yielded another special time for Dad. In the 1980's it was impossible to secure tickets to a Redskins game unless you had been a long-time season ticket holder.  The waiting list for tickets was measured in decades.  Even new congressional representatives couldn't get a seat.  Dad had never been to a Redskins game. I was desperate to get him a ticket even if it was on the top row of the end zone. My desperation was triggered by Dad's diagnosis of, and treatment for, lung cancer. A business colleague at Notre Dame University was close friends with a former NFL player, Bob Bowser.  Bob had been an assistant coach for the Chicago Bears from 1975 - 1977 and then the special assistant to the head coach for the Redskins from 1979 to 1980. My Notre Dame contact introduced me to Bob, who lived not far from my parents. I told Bob that "money was no object" if he could help me get a ticket, anywhere in the stadium, for my Dad.  Bob asked for my parents' address and told me that he would take care of it. Not long after, I received a phone call from Dad telling me that Bob had driven to the house and delivered to him two seats on the 50 yard line for the next Redskins game.  Dad was euphoric and took a close buddy to the game. Each year after that, Bob would call the house to let my parents know that he would be delivering two (fabulous) tickets for a home game.  My Mom would bake a cake in anticipation of his visit. Bob never let me pay him a dime.  Dad felt very special watching his beloved Redskins in the stadium.

Dad's cancer surgery gave him five more years, and he put each day to good use with family, friends, and especially his grandchildren.  Those were my best years with him too.  I last saw him in January 1991 during a business trip to Washington DC. The cancer had returned and he was frail and weak.  As I flew back to California, I had a premonition that I had seen my Dad for the very last time.

Finally, on May 21, 1991, less than a month after his 67th birthday, cancer had done what three years of war in the Pacific could not -- taken the life of this humble man.

A Marine color guard provided a beautiful and fitting send off to Dad, and he was buried at Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Maryland. His grave site is near that of his sister, Susie, brother, Charlie, Mother, Louise,  and, later, his wife, Helen.

Years later, as Mom was going through old photos and memorabilia, she came across my hand-written letter from 1976, and she mailed it to me.  Dad had saved it for 15 years.  I still have it in my dresser drawer, 33 years more.

Two close friends, Larry Barnes, and Carm Finocchiaro, both Marines, and my wife, Nan, have worked together to help me track down and discover more about my Dad's service.  The National Personnel Records Center of the National Archives informed me that Dad earned the following awards:

The World War II Victory Medal


The American Campaign Medal

 


The Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal w/4 bronze stars

 

and the Presidential Unit Commendation Ribbon


My brother, Wayne, offered a tribute to Dad in his hometown of Hampstead, Maryland on a recent Memorial Day, making all of us proud.

We hope that those who knew and loved Dad will think back on his legacy today, the 100th anniversary of his birth, with affection and appreciation.

Love,

Barbara, Cary, Wayne and Pat

April 22, 2024