This American Hero Is Finally Coming Home
WWII pilot's remains to be repatriated
Like millions of American men, John Thomas was eager to do his bit after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Like more than 400,000 of them, he never saw home again. His beloved sister Ruth mourned her brother to the end of her days. Decades after John’s death, his family still felt his absence keenly, through her pain.
I know because I felt it myself. I cannot be objective about this story. Ruth Thomas was my grandmother, and John was the hero great uncle I never got to meet. Buried herself a decade ago now, she never even got to receive what was left of John.
Now he is finally coming home and I shall be there to greet him, to tell him what he meant to her, and lay him to rest with his family.
A funeral, as well as a burial service of John’s ashes with full military honors, will take place this May in the tiny town of North Rose, New York, lying at the end of Sodus Bay near the shores of Lake Ontario, 50 miles east of Rochester. His remains will have travelled 4,501 miles (7,565 km) from Ploesti, Romania, where he died on the blackest day in the history of American military aviation.
Operation Tidal Wave aimed to destroy the refining facilities there and starve the Wehrmacht of fuel. According to James Dugan and Carroll Stewart, authors of Ploesti: The Great Ground-Air Battle of 1 August 1943, published in 1962 and still the best single volume on the topic, John’s B-24 Liberator, Aire Lobo, was flying at “flame level” just ahead of Dwight Patch, the pilot of Black Magic.
Both aircraft were struggling through the violent turbulence, buffeted by rising thermals and the vortices left by other planes. Just after releasing his bomb load, “Thomas received a direct hit in the cockpit and his craft began a faltering climb, drifting back into Patch’s flight path,” they write.
It slid by so close that Patch glimpsed “in the black, smoke-filled turret, ammunition exploding like popcorn.” Thomas’s ship crashed left wing first and disintegrated. Its co-pilot, David M. Lewis, was one of Patch’s closest friends. One man got out alive — the navigator, Robert D. Nash.
Official records show nine of the ten crew KIA, with Nash surviving only long enough to be taken prisoner. Some fog of war remains, however, as it is not clear how many times the plane was struck. According the website of the American Air Museum in Britain, which exists to commemorate 30,000 Americans who died flying in the European theater of war, Aire Lobo “was hit by flak before the target and again on the cockpit area after bombing.”
The nose art on Aire Lobo features a now-forgotten cartoon character, José Carioca, created by Walt Disney in 1942. Carioca starred opposite Donald Duck in Saludos Amigos, a Portuguese-language film made to strengthen ties with America’s war ally, Brazil. (You can watch the scene at this link.)
It is reasonable to assume that John saw the film during a morale screening in camp and found the dandyish character amusing. The scantily-clad woman with Carioca is probably meant to evoke the Brazilian Carnival.
John is wearing gloves in the above photo. They were necessary to touch a metal airplane in the Libyan desert. As seen in other photos from the North African theater, metal vehicles would get so hot that soldiers could fry eggs on them. Likewise, pith helmets offered more shade from the sun than other military headgear.
I started using John’s photo for this website and the associated social media accounts years ago without knowing he would ever come home. During the weeks to come, I hope to add more about John, including family photos that are not published online, as well as oral history. I will also tell the story of how John finally made it home.
I will also be writing a series of posts about OP Tidal Wave, the mad decision to attempt the low-level bombing mission, and how it became such a tragic day. He died in a great disaster, a mission so hapless and misbegotten that it was never imitated. What seemed like a good idea in the planning phase — fly low, avoid radar, surprise the enemy — turned into a fiasco.
The memory of my grandmother’s pain is raw and real. Too many American heroes died that day. For the sake of future American families, we must never forget.
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