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Bringing An American Hero Home
And laying him to rest
When he arrived at Hancock International Airport in Syracuse, New York earlier this month, 1st Lt. John Blakeslee Thomas received the traditional rite of every pilot on completing his very last flight. A pair of fire trucks arced sprays of water over the American Airlines jet bearing him home. An honor guard met him along with family and a local group of bikers, the Patriot Guard Riders, bearing American flags.
Thomas was at the end of a 79-year journey home from Ploesti, Romania. Draped with a flag, his casket bore dogtags with his blood type (O positive), serial number, and Protestant faith. Borne to a US Army hearse with a solemn display of drill, Thomas was then transferred to Farnsworth-Keysor Funeral Home in North Rose, New York, where his memorial took place on Saturday, 20 May 2023.
Maj. Daniel Collier, the casualty assistance officer, says that “typically we are working with someone who's died more recently, and those are always sad stories. This one is a little bit different” however, because so much time has passed.
An active reservist and an aviator himself, Collier was specially selected for the mission by Maj. Gen. Raymond Shields, adjutant general of the New York Army National Guard and Reserve components. Soldiers from the recruiting batallion made up the honor guard.
North Rose is a tiny town in Wayne County at the southern tip of Sodus Bay, an inlet of Lake Ontario. Thomas lived here with his family and graduated as class president (from a class of 14 students) at North Rose Central School in 1938.
A local newspaper covered his arrival and pending funeral services. As a result, the entire town turned out along the route from the funeral home to the cemetery on Saturday, American flags fluttering and hands on hearts for their long-lost hometown hero.
As Ed Thomas, one of the two closest living relatives to John Thomas, told the Finger Lakes Times, his uncle’s body was one of scores of American airmen who could not be identified in 1943 after their planes were shot down in Operation Tidal Wave, a daring and risky bid to cut off Hitler’s fuel supplies from Romania.
John’s twin brother George was Ed’s father. Sons of an attorney, John and George “both aspired to higher education. However, there was only money for one to go straight on to college.”
“My father said, ‘John, you go. You’re smarter than me,’” Ed said.
So, John went off to Cornell University to study agriculture, while Ed’s father went off to work at Gleason Works in Rochester, later heading to college and becoming a lawyer as well.
John didn’t get to finish at Cornell, attending two years before enlisting in the Army Air Corps — a predecessor to the U.S. Air Force — while Ed’s dad joined the Marines, surviving a torpedo strike and sinking of the aircraft carrier USS Wasp in 1942, as well as the bloody Battle of Guadalcanal against the Japanese in the South Pacific.
George, who never spoke about the war to his family, was a Marine Raider who also saw action on Okinawa and Guam. Both twins pursued high-risk occupations. Only one ever came home. Now they have been reunited at last, buried side by side, on what would have been their 103rd birthday.
John had completed 25 missions as a bomber pilot. He had the option to return to the United States but chose to participate in the riskiest mission the Army Air Corps had ever devised.
Before departing the US to captain a B-24D Liberator out of North Africa against Italian targets, John Thomas had found a woman to marry, but he never got to come home and conclude the match. “He was engaged in April and died in August,” Ed says.
Along with a cousin, Donna Thomas Bliss, Ed supplied the DNA that corroborated dental records and other evidence used to establish the identity of John’s remains. While researching John at Cornell University, Ed “learned his uncle had left a love note behind by way of a newspaper engagement announcement that was included in documents and photos the university kept on file for its service members.”
Known as “Bunny,” the fiancée appears with John in surviving photographs. Both are smiling, John from ear to ear. Their happiness was never consummated and her descendants through an eventual marriage have not been contacted. The viewer is left to imagine what their love might have been, had he lived.
John’s commanding officer, Col. John Riley Kane, wrote a prayer that was published at the end of Ploesti: The Great Ground-Air Battle of 1 August 1943 by James Dugan and Carroll Stuart. No words better convey the sense of loss:
TO THE FALLEN OF PLOESTI
To you who fly on forever I send that part of me which cannot be separated and is bound to you for all time. I send you those of our hopes and dreams that never quite came true, the joyous laughter and showery tears of our boyhood, the marvelous mysteries of our adolescence, the glorious strength and tragic illusions of our young manhood, all these that were and perhaps would have been, I leave in your care, out there in the blue.
My family waited a lifetime for this day. It was reading Dugan and Stuart’s account of his last moments, witnessed by survivors of his bomber formation, that started me down this path as a young boy, to become a military historian. My grandmother Ruth was never able to close this hole in her heart while she lived.
Now that I have done my duty to her, and seen her brother laid to rest, it does not feel like a book has closed, though. Instead, it seems to me that a mere chapter has finally ended, and now the real work of remembering can begin.
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