Prior to the U.S. entry into World War II, on Aug. 19, 1941, Dewey Thomas, a long-time resident of Wasco, was drafted and boarded a Greyhound bus bound for what he believed would be one year of military service.
“Catherine Fridley and I were engaged to be married, but we agreed it would be best if I got my year of duty over first before marrying,” Thomas wrote in “My Military Reflections,” a collection of remembrances. “It was more difficult to leave her than anything else. We were fortunate that we didn’t know it would be over four years before I would return, nearly four years before we’d see each other again.”
Little more than four months later, following the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941, the United States entered World War II.
On Jan. 12, 1942, Thomas shipped out from San Francisco aboard the SS President Coolidge, a former American luxury ocean liner serving as a troopship, as a sergeant in the 808th Engineers Aviation Battalion, Fifth Air Corps. Passing under the Golden Gate Bridge, Thomas wondered if he would ever see it again. “The news of the war was so discouraging,” he remembers.
So began a tour of duty during which Thomas earned five bronze stars and five battle stars.
When asked by Congressman Greg Walden about his medals, Thomas, now living at The Springs at Mill Creek care facility, made light of them: “I just crawled the wrong way a few times,” he chuckled.
Thomas’ memoir paints a more detailed picture:
For Thomas, the war was hell from the get go, as the Coolidge crossed the open ocean with 6,000 serviceman, each restricted to one canteen of water and two meals a day.
“My C Company had (military police duty) the entire way,” Coolidge said. “No land was in sight. I hated guarding the water because the pressure of the soldiers begging for water was so strong,” he said. “We did not know our destination.”
After 20 days at sea, the Coolidge was met by four Australian warships. “Land was sighted, and we finally knew we were going to Australia. Originally we were headed for the Philippines, but the Philippines was being attacked, and they figured we’d never be able to get in. So we landed at Melbourne, Australia, on Feb. 2, 1942.”
The 808th loaded their equipment on a coal-burning train—by night everyone’s faces and clothes were blackened with coal smoke—and began a 3,000 mile trip toward Darwin, Australia, but unloaded early when they learned Darwin had been bombed by 200 or more Japanese planes.
It was a long and arduous trip by train, truck and afoot. Finally they pitched their pup tents in the tall grass along the Katherine River. “That night, I got bitten on the butt by a centipede. The next morning, I could hardly walk,” Thomas recalled.
They were also found by the Japanese that first night. “They (planes) came through camp with their guns blazing and strafing.” Troops were instructed on air raid alarms, and aircraft spotters appointed. “We had US, Australian and Japanese aircraft to identify,” Thomas explained.
Refugees from the attack in Darwin began arriving, and troops learned the Japanese had sunk every ship in the harbor and shot up the airport. “Only one allied plane got off the ground, and it was shot down. The whole town was practically defenseless,” Thomas said.
More than 1,000 soldiers were reportedly killed in that raid, and about 17 US ships sunk.
The war came closer and closer. While building an airfield at Catherine, planes again flew in low, strafing the airfield. “We had 85 holes in the aerodrome we were building,” Thomas remembers. An aboriginal man watching them work was killed, and when no one came to pick up his body it was eventually placed in a nearby bomb crater and covered over with a dozer, or tractor with a large blade.
It wouldn’t be the last time Thomas buried the dead, from both sides of the conflict.
Thomas recalls driving trucks through the desert, which made easy targets for the Japanese planes. “When they spotted us, we stopped and crawled under the back wheels. We got all the trucks across the desert, but the strain of travel in the heat was rough.”
The finished airfield was named Livingstone, after a pilot who crashed into a grader while landing and was killed.
The air force investigated the crash, but did not remove his body for two days. “Witnessing that lack of attention makes you feel your life is not worth much. One of our soldiers, Pat Berry, took his own life. Of course, that sent a chill through the battalion; the morale was already low and there was no good news.”
At one point, Thomas recalled lying on bare ground as a plane passed, guns ablaze. No one was hit, but when he got up one of the guys pointed to where he had been: “Thomas, look where you were lying there—you had shots all around you. You had one about six inches from your heart, one between you legs, another a few inches from your head.”
"But that was just the beginning of the war for us," he added. “We didn’t know we had almost four more years ahead of us.”
Airfields complete, the battalion headed for New Guinea on a Dutch ship. “That was the worst trip ever,” Thomas said.
Having landed without equipment—the dozers had somehow not been shipped—and suffering under daily aerial attacks, the battalion was moved to Organa Swamp, where they had some cover under 75-foot-high trees with heavy vines—loaded with red ant nests. “The ants had an awful sting. Plans were laid for the 808th Engineers to build an airfield there, so we did,” he said. “The mosquitoes ate on everyone,” he added.
There were church services at times, Thomas recalled, but not many attended. “I think it was because we’d get so disgusted sometimes the way things were going, that you could almost swear one minute and be praying the next. You were out there in the pouring rain and trying to get things done, and trucks were stuck, and you were trying to get supplies to somebody hollering for ammunition, and everybody was tired—and, just sometimes, you really wondered how you could go on in the conditions that we had to work and live under day after day.”
After two years' work in New Guinea, the 808th had a brief rest in Australia before returning to New Guinea.
A request for troops was made to assist the Australian forces up the Laylock River, and again Thomas’ C Company was selected. “It was our first time to go into the jungle against the Japanese,” Thomas said.
With only field bags, rifles, ammunition and bayonets, the company moved into position. “We tied oil barrels together to make a bridge across the river,” Thomas explained. They were tasked with keeping the enemy from crossing as well.
That first night, Thomas remembers, “we were both amazed to think that we would really be facing the enemy in such a short time.”
The battle was fierce. “We almost felt like we were on death row, being so outnumbered by the Japanese. Our officers explained that there was no way off the island. We saw so many close calls during that time, you just had to take it and do the best you could with each task.”
“It’s impossible to really explain how long and treacherous that mountain was; a 125-mile stretch of jungle, infested with snakes, all kinds of varmints and treacherous things. It was a wonder that those of us who did, lived through it.”
When they finally went back to camp, they walked the beach where the Japanese had landed, then the Australians and the Americans. “You almost had to walk over bodies to get out to the beach,” he said. “The few of us who survived the mountain, got out and finally made it back to our outfit and went to work on the airport again.”
Building and maintaining an airfield had its own dangers. “We were out there every night on our tractors, and we would have all the lights on. Planes would come in and bomb and strafe throughout the night. We were almost a nervous wreck.”
While stationed at the airport, Thomas began helping fly missions after “work,” volunteering to kick food and ammunition out the door of a low-flying plane. “We’d fly up and down the canyons at treetop level—most of the time the planes came back with brush hanging from their wings,” he recalled. “That was the way the troops got supplies; we couldn’t get anything in by boat.”
Once, Thomas was asked to take out enemy pillboxes with a dozer. “They were killing our men by the thousands, because they were so dug in,” he explained.
That first time, he used an armored dozer with only a small hole to see out of. “That day, I went right in and the shells were hitting me like hail balls, only it was real lead. Looking out the hole, I could see hundreds of tracers flying all around me.” After that, he used an open dozer. “Boy, you felt like a sitting duck. But that was what we were called to do and we did it. Tragedies happened from dangerous assignments, but you had to do it. You had no choice. You just go out there and do it, no matter what happens to you, whether you live through it or not.”
“We spent all our time in the combat area, where it seemed you’d get done with one field, and there would be another invasion, and we’d be called to leave and move further into the jungle. And the Japanese were always there.”
Following a short rest in Australia, his company again served as shock troops for the invasion of Buna, another piece of the New Guinea campaign.
“We lost a lot of men, just taking that area,” he said. “That was a really awful place to fight, you couldn’t have found a worse place to begin combat.”
“There are not many nights that go by today that I don’t think of some of the things that went on during those lonely nights overseas. We could see soldiers from both sides, lying on the hillside; the medics would crawl up to find out if they were wounded or dead. If wounded, they’d try to get them down to the beach. There was no way to get them off the island, and many of them died.”
Using the dozer, Thomas helped bury the dead of both sides. “You see how young they are,” he said of the burial.
Thomas was cut off from the US forces until the entire island had been taken. “When I left the Aussies, we all shed a few tears. I think we were just happy that some of us had survived the battle.”
Loaded into ships and ready to head off on another invasion with the 808th, Thomas’ boat was attacked by Japanese bombers. “Dive bombers were attacking us everywhere, we could see the bombs falling around us."
One Japanese plane, targeting the ship he was on, missed and crashed into the water not 10 feet from where he stood on deck. But somehow not a single ship was hit, and 46 enemy bombers were downed. “I think that was one of the luckier days we had,” Thomas said.
He also served as a scout, entering occupied territory to see what was there before the rest of the troops landed. “The Navy would take us, dump us off in the jungle, and pick us up in a few days. It was a hair-raising experience.”
Later in the war, the tide of battle began to turn. “We finally had so many planes, we could really give the Japanese a run for their money.”
But the war went on. Recalling one attack, Thomas wrote, “That really gets your attention, when you’re sitting on the tractor, your radiator is all of a sudden full of shrapnel and the tires on your carryall are all blown out. It was just plain scary, and you knew that all you were doing was running on luck.”
In July of 1944, the 808th began training for the invasion of the Philippines on a small coral island. On Oct. 16, anchors were pulled and almost 800 ships and 200,000 men set off to invade Leyte, one of the islands in the Philippines.
“That was the most important and most difficult landing of our career,” Thomas said. During the landing, the landing craft was hung up a couple of hundred feet from shore. “I was to be the first one to go off, with a D8 (dozer),” Thomas recalled. “When I got off, I was sitting in water clear up to my armpits—and that shows you how important it was to have all the vehicles waterproofed so they can go off into deep water. There were hundreds of men who didn’t make it to shore.”
Thomas went to work with his dozer, building ramps for the unloading, as ships were destroyed by kamikaze planes and battleships lobbed shells inland. “Through the tractor noise, we could hear the shells swishing as they went through air, one right after the other.”
Thomas recalled Oct. 26 was an uneasy day, one among so many: “There were numerous raids during the day. The spent bullets from the ack ack (anti-aircraft) guns in the ships in the harbor were more dangerous than the bombs. Shrapnel was falling all over, a lot of it in big chunks from guns and everything. We’d made sure we had our helmets on, but a few men were being killed. I was on the field with eight men when they suddenly ran over to the tractor and laid down. I jumped down off the tractor and in between the dozer and the tractor. That’s what saved me.” The others were seriously wounded by shrapnel, and the officer later died.
Thomas left the Philippine Islands in May of 1945, and four months later, on Sept. 2, 1945, the Japanese delegation surrendered. World War II was over.
After recovering from the war, Thomas returned to Sherman County. where his fiancée Catherine Fridley was waiting for him. They married and raised a family. Thomas became a farmer, working over 2,000 acres of wheat.
Thomas created his memoir with his daughter, the late Reine Thomas, who transcribed his tapes and remembrances into the book using his own words.
He said he often thinks of those times, the odd things that happened, the men who lived and the men who died. “You just try to do the things that you figure are right, but sometimes that isn’t enough. I don’t know, I never understood war, even after I got home. People getting killed, day after day. It’s just what we lived with.”
In 2016, Thomas was honored as Grand Marshal for the Memorial Day Parade in Wasco.
He volunteered at the Oregon Veteran's Home in The Dalles for many years, meeting many of his fellow servicemen who fought in the South Pacific.
"Working with local veterans, you realize all over again what a heavy price was paid for WWII," he said. “There’s fellows in there who are missing an arm or a leg, or maybe both. It really brings back the memories of what I went through. I realize how lucky I was, in spite of all the things I went through over 36 months in the combat area. I remember all the close calls and wonder how I really survived all those years of war.
“And I think about all those who didn’t come home at all, and those fellows at the Veterans’ Home who have been over 60 years, living with the loss of limbs and other injuries.
“Sometimes it’s very painful when you get to know a fellow there, and he has a sense of humor that you really enjoy, and you go in one day, and see the empty room and his name's not on the door anymore. That’s the other side, that sometimes isn’t very pleasant. No one knows what each day may bring.
“They’re a great bunch of guys, taking life in stride, and I’ve learned a lot and enjoyed getting to know them.”