- Historic Sites
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 tour ended late in 1933; there was trouble in Nicaragua, and Thomason hoped for a posting with the forces being sent. He was getting a bit too prominent, however, for the Marine Corps to bury him in remote expeditionary forces—he was far and away the most famous Marine officer in the country—and to his initial consternation, he was posted as junior Marine Corps aide to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Henry Roosevelt. Many would have welcomed the position, on the fringes of policy level and with easy access to the cream of Washington society. But it wasn’t Marine mainstream, it was a sideline, and Thomason feared he wouldn’t be getting his ticket punched for the field-grade promotions that lay ahead.
Nevertheless, within six months he was promoted to major, and in June of 1937 he was ordered to the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, as a student—and was promoted to lieutenant colonel. The assignment was gratifying; everyone knew there was a war in the not-too-distant offing, and Thomason had been away from duty with the troops since 1933. The Naval War College wasn’t troop duty either, but it was the seedbed for high command, and the promotion showed he was still on track. In 1938 he went to train platoon leaders at Camp Pendleton, the San Diego Marine Corps base, and then took command of a rifle regiment. This was more like it, although the combat units had changed. They were smaller, but with twice the firepower and all kinds of new weapons and equipment: artillery, radios, armor, amphibious vehicles, and Marine airplanes for ground support.
Thomason, essentially a rifle-and-bayonet Old Breed Marine, was now forty-six, and feeling the strain. He worked long, hard hours, with a grueling weekly twenty-mile march. War came to Europe, and a thrill of expectation ran through the Marine Corps; it was about to expand enormously (although few dreamed the tight-knit band of 1,192 officers and 15,343 men in the mid-1950s would peak fortyfold by V-J Day, when some 669,100 men and women had served). The Old Breed officers, with First World War ribbons, could look forward to brigade, even divisional, commands. The lean years were over.
Thomason was technically fit for duty, but the long years of late-night socializing—and alcohol—had taken their toll. He carried himself well, and he still had hopes of higher command. Only in the medical record were there hints all was not well, with sporadic hospitalization for “overwork.”
In June of 1940 he was relieved of his command and ordered to Washington, assigned the Latin American desk in the Office of Naval Intelligence. It was a blow that shattered all his hopes; not only was the ONI a sideline, but the Latin American desk was a sideline to a sideline. His service record was outstanding; his service reputation, at the levels that counted, was not. Those carefully picking the commanders who would soon be leading a new Marine Corps into battle were all too well aware of what Thomason’s medical record had glossed over. After twenty-three years of service, he had seen his last duty with the troops, and he knew it.
He made the best of it, of course, and kept writing. In early 1941 Scribner’s published Lone Star Preacher , a series of loosely linked Civil War stories based on the circuit-riding Methodist preacher, the “Uncle John” of his childhood, who had been transmogrified into Church Elder Praxiteles Swan; parts had been serialized in The Saturday Evening Post . It was, perhaps, his best work, after Fix Bayonets! .
Not long after, Scribner’s published —and a Few Marines , a collection of thirty-seven of his earlier pieces, and with several of his books in print, Thomason had reached the height of his literary reputation. Even a year into the war, he was unquestionably the best-known Marine officer in America.
Despite the presence of Lt. Col. Laurence Stallings in his section (his old companion, willow leg and all, had gotten himself returned to active duty), Thomason still hungered for combat assignment, and Adm. Chester Nimitz, an old friend, offered him the post of war-plans officer and inspector of Marine bases on his staff at Pearl Harbor. Thomason was still sidelined, but it was the best sideline seat there was, and more than he expected. He made the most of it; he toured the entire Pacific theater of operations—with a stop at Guadalcanal, still not entirely secured. He reached the Japanese airfield at Munda even as the Marines were taking it; he was in an antiaircraft gun pit when a Japanese dive bomber struck, killing the entire crew. He’d made it to combat after all, if only as a visiting fireman.
It was all a bit too much; he was hospitalized for a fortnight in Australia with what was diagnosed as double pneumonia, and on his return to Pearl Harbor it was obvious to all he wasn’t fit for duty. He had, during the tour, fallen off a pier in the forward area in broad daylight, and although Nimitz tried to get the general to reconsider, Gen. Thomas Holcomb, U.S.M.C., in whose area the embarrassing incident occurred, insisted Thomason be sent home (out of “solicitude for my health,” as Thomason tactfully put it in a letter to his mother).