- 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
By August of 1943 he was back at Camp Elliott—if not in disgrace, with the remnants of his service career in tatters. By Christmas he was back for a short spell in the Naval Hospital at San Diego; on March 12, 1944, aged fifty-one, he died there. There had been ulcers, and cardiovascular problems, and unquestionably overwork—all vastly complicated by alcohol. The marvel is, that with such handicaps he had continued to function so remarkably and productively, in two demanding careers, for the last decade of his life.
The Navy looks after its own. Within weeks a new-construction Sumner -class destroyer was named the USS John W. Thomason (DD 760). Commissioned too late for service in World War II, she earned battle stars in Korea and Vietnam and in 1974 was sold to the Republic of China; as the Nan Yang (Southern Sun) of the ROC Navy, she soldiers on to this day.
Thomason’s mother survived him, dying at ninety-three in 1964. His son Jack, a Marine Corps major, died in a transport crash in Calcutta in 1947; his widow Leda died in 1986. Three sisters (the eldest ninety-nine) survive; a niece and her husband, Dr. and Mrs. Thomas C. Cole, Jr., live in the magnificently restored family home in Huntsville.
John W. Thomason was the prototype of a vanished Marine Corps era; the Old Breed survived from the First World War until it was submerged by the hordes of new recruits in the Second. He was a hugely competent writer, if not from the top literary drawer, at the very top of the second. His characters were neither complex nor deep (with the possible exception of Praxiteles Swan), but they were alive, men (and women) of action, with no forced macho overtones, and their dialogue was vivid and rang true; for all his physical problems, Thomason never suffered from a tin ear.
His prose, moreover, is unique; he shares with Rudyard Kipling and H. H. Munro (Saki) the distinction of having stamped his identity on every paragraph. Nothing he wrote could ever be mistaken for anyone else’s work. His writing was lean and muscular (not always a favorite adjective with current critics), but it was also sensitive, and it carried his stories buoyantly, with never a word wasted. His values were clean and clear-cut; those aspiring to acquire the elements of literary style can do far worse than turning to his pages. His illustrations were equally unique; his simplest sketch can’t be confused with that of any other artist.
Few remember him now (there are, astonishingly, even Marines who can’t identify him), but for decades he stood for the Marine Corps, for the Old Corps and its old values, and for high adventure in distant and exotic climes. He was always in perfect tune with his times, and his niche in the American literary heritage is secure.