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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
Unfortunately he had also departed. He was at sea even before his first article appeared in Scribner’s . (He left the Ammunition Depot just in time; a month after his departure lightning struck, and his successor and thirty-seven Marines died in a volcanic explosion.) Despite urgings to resign his commission and devote himself to writing and illustrating, Thomason regarded himself—to the end of his days—as a Marine, first, last, and always. He had accepted assignment as commander of the 103-man Marine guard aboard USS Rochester , an armored cruiser and flagship of the Special Service Squadron based at Balboa in the Panama Canal Zone. (The Rochester had started life as USS New York , distinguishing herself at the Battle of Santiago in 1898.)
An avalanche of enthusiastic mail descended on the Rochester . There were requests for more material; bids to illustrate books and articles. William Randolph Hearst tried unsuccessfully to buy Thomason’s exclusive services for Cosmopolitan .
Thomason was enormously busy; there seemed to be a bottomless market for whatever he could turn out, and he found material for articles and short stories all around him: the adventures of the enlisted Marines, the ritual of “crossing the line,” the ship’s mascot, and even the impact of mail on a distant ship’s company. He was also polishing the text for Scribner’s book. Fix Bayonets! came out in March of 1926; the reviews were unanimously laudatory.
“It is a book that is part of the American heritage,” wrote Stallings in McCall’s . “It becomes this heritage not only for its prose. Its drawings contain, above all others done by Americans in war, the philosophy of conflict. Thomason draws his war at the point of the individual resolve to kill or be killed, and every line of the bodies that he depicts is agonized with this resolve. The pictures are inextricably woven into the text in a wonderful stroke of two talents of the artist found within the gift of one man, and that man a soldier first of all. A professional soldier, enamoured of his calling of death, and yet more frank in his delineation of the faults of his mistress than a thousand enemies of her, but unwavering in his devotion to the men that serve her dark mis- sions of waste and destruction.” The book was a runaway bestseller, going through three printings of fifteen thousand in ninety days.
Finances were no longer a problem—as they were for most officers in those years. Assigned to Fort Humphreys, Thomason bought a house in Washington, and a Buick, and was able to put some money aside. His social life was growing apace, including dinner at the White House. By spring of 1928 he was granted a fortnight’s leave, to “recover from exhaustion.” It was another hint of a growing problem; Thomason was by now a “heavy social drinker,” a condition the Marine Corps had considerable experience with. As long as an officer performed his duties, and there were no public incidents, the corps would overlook alcoholism, even to the extent of covering medical treatment with euphemisms.
Thomason’s next project was a biography of Jeb Stuart. He was at his best writing about military men, and he had milked the First World War dry. He had been steeped from childhood in stories of the Civil War, from the men who had fought in it, and his own combat experience allowed him to empathize with those who had fought a half-century earlier. (“I remember the morning of July 18”—he had written his mother during the war—"without food for three days—literally—the last water 12 hours gone, on top of 18 hours on camions and a day and a night of marching—we went into battle—and it was a glorious day. There was one long dark road, and the might of France went on that road in two night marches—the Brigade was part of it—300,000 men and guns to push them home. Such a move it was that Jackson made at Chancellorsville, a thousand times magnified.”)
In 1930 Jeb Stuart appeared in six installments in Scribner’s and then as a book—his fourth. Again, it met universal critical acclaim (Thomason, apparently, never received a bad review for any of his work); it was not only competent history but literature as well, and it sold briskly.
The next assignment, late that year, was to the Legation Guard at the embassy in Peking, a plum posting: eight servants, not to mention stablehands, and a bustling social life. Thomason was even able to maintain a string of polo ponies.
In 1933 active fighting broke out between the Japanese and Chinese units near Shanghai; Thomason wangled a post as observer with the Japanese troops and witnessed much of the fighting. Despite the Bushido code of the officers (whom he found “good drinking companions”), he reported Japanese organization, training, communications, and enlisted men’s spirit lacking—by no means up to Marine Corps standards.