|Member since: 06 Aug, 2012|
Gerald W. Thomas was born at home in Small, Idaho,
in 1919. He grew up on a ranch during the Great
Depression. He graduated from the University of
Idaho just in time to volunteer for Navy service
following Pearl Harbor.
Drawn to flying after seeing his first flying
machine while salvaging rusty barb wire at an
abandoned homestead, Thomas applied for, was
accepted, and graduated from flight training.
As a Navy Cadet he was trained as a dive bomber,
but his duty assignment was to Torpedo Squadron
VT-4 as a carrier-based TBF torpedo bomber,
serving on USS RANGER, USS BUNKER HILL, and USS
ESSEX, in both the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters.
While on the RANGER, he participated in OPERATION
LEADER, the most significant attack on Northern
Europe by a US carrier during the war. OPERATION
LEADER was a strike against German shipping and
shore installations along the fjords south of
Bodo, Norway. This operation was a complete
surprise to the German defensive forces and
destroyed 23,000 tons of shipping, damaged 4 other
ships, and killed about 200 German troops.
During LEADER, while attacking a freight barge
carrying 40 tons of ammunition, Thomas' plane
was hit by anti-aircraft fire. The engine began
burning and it appeared the plane was going down.
Thomas ordered his crew of two to bail out and had
just opened the cockpit and was climbing out when
his turret gunner yelled, "Don't jump,
don't jump." The other crewman had
accidentally opened his parachute in the belly of
the plane. With bailing no longer possible, Thomas
considered his options and decided their best
chance was to fly the plane toward the carrier as
far as it would go. Surprisingly, in spite of the
considerable engine damage, the plane made it back
to the RANGER, where Thomas crash-landed. That
landing was his 13th official carrier landing.
In the Pacific, Thomas participated in the
numerous actions against Japanese targets in the
Philippines, including strikes on Ormoc Bay,
Cavite, Manilla, Santa Cruz, San Fernando,
Lingayen, Mindoro, Clark Field and Aparri.
Following these actions, Thomas' squadron
made strikes on Formosa, French Indo-China,
Saigon, Pescadores, Hainan, Amami O Shima, Iwo
Jima, Okinawa, and Japan. The attack on Japan was
the first attack on Japan from an aircraft carrier
since the "Doolittle Raid."
While on the ESSEX, just after Thomas had returned
from a strike on Santa Cruz, the ship was hit by a
Kamikaze piloted by Yoshinori Yamaguchi, Yoshino
Special Attack Corps. Yamaguchi was flying a
Yokosuba D4Y3 dive bomber. The Kamikaze attack
killed 16 crewman and wounded 44.
Returning from a strike on Hainan, off the Chinese
coast, Thomas' plane ran out of fuel. After a
harrowing water landing, Thomas and squadron
photographer Montague succeeded in inflating and
launching one rubber boat and his crewman Gress
another. After a long day in pre-Typhoon weather
with 40 foot swells, the three were rescued by the
Following World War II, he earned a Ph.D in Range
Management, and after stints as professor at Texas
A&M University and Dean of Agriculture at
Texas Tech University, he became president of New
Mexico State University. He retired after serving
as president for 14 years.
Thomas was awarded 3 Distinguished Flying Crosses,
2 Air Medals, and 2 Presidential Citations for his
combat actions in WWII. He retired from the Navy
Reserve with the rank of Lieutenant Commander.
He is the author of numerous books, including
"Torpedo Squadron Four: A Cockpit View of
World War II," "A Winding Road To The
Land Of Enchantment," and "The Academic