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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
Thomason described that fight in the third person: “Here and there a well-fought Maxim gun held its front until somebody—officer, non-com, or private—got a few men together and, crawling to left or right, gained a flank and silenced it. And some guns were silenced by blind, furious rushes that left a trail of writhing khaki figures, but always carried two or three frenzied Marines with bayonets into the emplacement; from whence would come shooting and screaming and other clotted unpleasant sounds, and then silence.
“From such a place, with four men, the lieutenant climbed, and stood leaning on his rifle, while he wiped the sweat from his eyes with a shaking hand. Panting, white or red after their nature—for fighting takes men differently, as whiskey does—the four grouped around him. One of them squatted and was very sick. And one of them, quite young and freckled, explored a near-by hole and prodded half a dozen Boches out of it, who were most anxious to make friends. The other three took interest in this, and the Boches saw death in their eyes. They howled like animals, these big hairy men of Saxony, and capered in a very ecstasy of terror. The freckled Marine set his feet deliberately, judging his distance, and poised his bayonet. The lieutenant grasped his arm—’No! No! take ‘em back—they’ve quit. Take ‘em to the rear, I tell you.’ The freckled one obeyed, very surly, and went off through the tangle to the rear.
“Afterward, sweating and panting, the freckled one who had started back with prisoners caught up with the lieutenant. ‘Lootenant, sir!’ he gasped, wiping certain stains from his bayonet with his sleeve. ‘Them damn Heinies tried to run on me, an’ I jest natcherly had to shoot ‘em up a few—’ and he looked guilelessly into the officer’s eyes. ‘Why you—Hell! … fall in behind me, then, an’ come along. Need another orderly.’”
The battles followed, stepping on each other’s heels; Mont Blanc, St.-Mihiel, the Meuse-Argonne. Thomason was in the thick of them all. “That night, lying in its shallow, hastily dug holes, the remnant of the battalion descended through further hells of shelling. The next night tins of beef and bread came up. There was some grim laughter when it came. ‘Captain,’ reported the one remaining sergeant, after distributing rations in the dark, ‘they sent us chow according to the last strength report—three days ago—230-odd rations. The men are building breastworks out of the corned-willy cans, sir! —twenty of ‘em’— …
“More days and nights, slipping, characterless, into each other. Being less than a company in strength, the 1st Battalion of the 5th was not called on to attack again. They lay in their holes and endured. ‘Until the division has accomplished its mission,’ said the second-in-command, rubbing his dirt-encrusted and unshaven chin. ‘That means, until the rest of the outfit is killed down as close as we are. Then we’ll be relieved, an’ get a week’s rest and a gang of bloodthirsty replacements, an’ then we can do it all over again. …’
“And after certain days the division was relieved. The battalion marched out at night. The drumming thunder of the guns fell behind them and no man turned his face to look again on the baleful lights of the front. On the road they passed a regiment of the relieving division—full, strong companies of National Guardsmen. They went up one side of the road; and in ragged column of twos, unsightly even in the dim and fitful light, the Marines plodded down the other side. They were utterly weary, with shuffling feet and hanging heads. The division had just done something that those old masters in the art of war, the French, and the world after them, including Ludendorff, were to acknowledge remarkable. They had hurled the Boche from Blanc Mont and freed the sacred city of Rheims. They had paid a price hideous even for this war. And they were spent. If there was any idea in those hanging heads it was food and rest.”
Thomason fought almost continuously until four days before the armistice, when, still unwounded, with a fever of 104 degrees, he was packed off for a short hospital spell. It may have been a touch of the Spanish flu, complicated by overwork and exhaustion; it may have been something else. It was a pattern that would reoccur.
With the armistice he hoped to be home by Christmas, but he drew occupation duty in Coblenz. On Friday, December 13, 1918, he marched his company across the Rhine into Germany.
“Toward noon the clouds lifted, and the rain slowed to a thin drizzle, although it did not stop. The battalion filed between hills toward a great valley, dimly seen. The hills towered over them, dark, menacing—‘No wonder the ole Boche has such a mean disposition, livin’ in a country like this—’ The battalion came into a town with paved streets and trolley-cars and tall factory chimneys that did not smoke. Platoon commanders said it was Remagen; those towers to the right would be the bridge. There was a bridge, a great steel structure of high black arches. The battalion filed upon it.…”