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A TEXAS MARINE WHO DREW BEAUTIFULLY AND WROTE AS WELL AS HE DREW BECAME THE LAUREATE OF THE MEN WHO CHECKED THE LAST GREAT GERMAN OFFENSIVE. ALL BUT FORGOTTEN TODAY, HIS 1926 BESTSELLER REMAINS PERHAPS THE FINEST ACCOUNT OF AMERICANS IN THE GREAT WAR.
November 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 7
The years of drifting were over; Thomason had found himself in combat.
He took his mother into his confidence. Teaching was a dead end; he wanted to be an artist. With her support, his reluctant father finally agreed to a year at the Art Students League in New York City. John arrived in Manhattan in May of 1914, on a tight allowance—and at first sight detested the city. It was enormous, dirty, and noisy; he was living in a four-dollar-a-week room, lunching on milk and a sandwich, and commuting by subway to the Art Students League.
But New York started to grow on him. The teeming streets and the waterfronts offered endless subjects for his pencil, the architecture impressed him, and, as the war in Europe got under way, he, too, was gripped by the popular excitement. He visited warships moored in the Hudson; their grim, gray aura of power fascinated him.
A year later he was back in Huntsville. He was now twenty-two, a competent illustrator—not a productive profession (especially in Huntsville), with the need to support himself. In July of 1916 he went to work as a cub reporter on the Houston Chronicle and began to cover a variety of stories—political campaigns, interviews with assorted notabilities—and an anti-vice campaign. He wrote well$#8212;extremely well—and the work added a polish to his mixed education in what the French call l’école des quatre vents —the school of the four winds. Just possibly, his future lay in journalism. On the strength of his salary, he proposed to Leda and was accepted.
It wasn’t to be. In April the Chronicle carried a call from the United States Marine Corps for 150 young men to be commissioned as second lieutenants. John picked up his last paycheck, walked across the street to the Rice Hotel, and enlisted—on the day the United States declared war on Germany. He applied for one of the Marine reserve commissions (on the strength of his expectations, the Marine Corps made him a gunnery sergeant), and he was sent to New Orleans to drill the young volunteers flooding into the corps. The commission came through promptly, and John was posted to Charleston, South Carolina, for further training.
In June, somewhat to his surprise, his reserve commission was replaced by a regular Marine Corps commission. This was a godsend; it carried far more prestige than his Naval Volunteer Reserve commission and held out the promise of a Marine career after the war. Leda was on a trip to New York and passed through Washington, visiting relatives, on the way back. Thomason caught a train to Washington, married her, and bore her back in triumph to Charleston; there wasn’t time for a honeymoon.
In October Thomason was promoted first lieutenant and ordered to Quantico, Virginia, for the grueling ninety-day training course for newly commissioned officers. Among his classmates was Laurence Tucker Stallings, an Atlanta man who shared similar literary tastes, with an equally checkered educational career. Stallings had been expelled from Trinity (later Duke University) after being caught drinking and smoking during a poker game. Dr. William Louis Poteat accepted him at Wake Forest, a Baptist institution (although “Doctor Billy” was surprisingly liberal). Within months Stallings was again caught in a poker game, equipped with a cigar and a bottle of moonshine.
“Young man,” Dr. Poteat asked the culprit in his office the following morning, “can you give me one good reason why I shouldn’t expel you?”
Stallings thought fast. “Yes, sir. I’m engaged to your daughter.” On reflection Dr. Poteat decided that did indeed constitute a good reason; Stallings was retained—on probation. He then scurried off to find Helen Poteat, whom he hadn’t yet actually met, before her father sent for her, and threw himself on her mercy. She thought it hilarious and agreed to play along to save Laurence’s academic career. The war came, and Stallings followed the same route Thomason had—and married Helen when he returned from overseas.
In May of 1918 1st Lt. John W. Thomason, Jr., U.S.M.C., arrived in France, in the 4th Marine Brigade of the 5th Marines, part of the 2d Division, American Expeditionary Forces. He took stock of his raw new platoon. As he later wrote, “there were also a number of diverse people who ran curiously to type, with drilled shoulders and a bone-deep sunburn, and a tolerant scorn of nearly everything on earth. Their speech was flavored with navy words, and … in easy hours their talk ran from the Tartar Wall beyond Pekin to the Southern Islands, down under Manila. … Rifles were high and holy things to them, and they knew five-inch broadside guns. They talked patronizingly of the war, and were concerned about rations. They were the Leathernecks, the Old Timers … the old breed of American regular, regarding the service as home and war as an occupation; and they transmitted their temper and character and view-point to the high-hearted volunteer mass which filled the ranks of the Marine Brigade.”