Today, June 6, is the anniversary of the greatest invasion in recorded history, the landing of the Allied Forces on the shores of the European continent in 1944 on D-Day. We have been told many stories about World War II and particularly the storming of the beaches of Normandy.
We’ve seen the movies like Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day, Where Eagles Dare and The Big Red One. The movies had stars like Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Richard Burton, John Wayne, Sean Connery, Henry Fonda, Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin. The only black actor I remember in a major World War II movie was Jim Brown in The Dirty Dozen. He was one of the featured criminals. He could run fast and died at the end.
These movies provide us with a belief about our country and our heroes. The movies tell us of those who fought for our freedom. They describe true Americans.
The only problem with the movies is that they don’t tell the whole story. That’s why I wish there were more stories with black soldiers because I’ve always known of their great contribution.
I grew up knowing about the 9th and 10th Calvary of Buffalo Soldiers, the Tuskegee Airmen and the Double Nickel fliers in the Air Force. I read about the truckers who supplied General Patton’s forces in the war, making it possible for France to be liberated. I knew blacks had to fought for their country. I learned that from books and doing my own research.
This week I found out more.
Wilbert Leon Thomas, Sr. was my father’s best friend. He has been the one I send Father’s Day cards to for the past four years since my father passed. He was like a second father to me. I have known and looked up to him all of my life.
On May 21, 2010 Wilbert Thomas passed away peacefully at his home. Mr. Thomas entered the world on October 11, 1923 in Wisner, Louisiana. He was the youngest of five children. Mr. Thomas entered military service in the Army in May of 1943 and deployed to foreign service in 1943. First on the beaches of Normandy, he was part of General Patton’s armed advanced. He participated in the famous Red Ball Express convoy, driving at night using “cat eyes” to avoid detection while transporting vital supplies, equipment and replacement troops to the front lines in France during World War II. From France his tour of duty took him to Germany. Mr. Thomas learned to speak both French and German and earned the World II Victory, ATO, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign, and Good Conduct medals.
After the war, Mr. Thomas married his high school sweetheart, Earlina Haynes, in 1947. They made Leavenworth, Kansas their home and remained married for nearly sixty years. Mr. Thomas was actively involved with this church, Independent Baptist Church, the Northeastern District and State of Kansas Laymen Associations, Masons and the Boy Scouts. There was not a day in his life that was not at least fair to middling.
All of Mr. Thomas’ siblings, his wife and three children preceded him in death. He is survived by two sons and two daughters and a host of other relatives.
This is just a portion of Mr. Thomas’ obituary. He was a part of the Greatest Generation that Tom Brokaw writes about. He fought discrimination to serve. He fought in the fiercest of battles, at Normandy. He spoke three languages. He returned home to marry his sweetheart, raise his family and serve his community.
I’ve known Mr. Thomas all of my life and did not know of this service. My mothers tell me that they didn’t know either and they’ve known him forever.
I knew that Mr. Thomas was just like my old man. He always had several jobs – a full time job, a part time job, weekend and extra work, plus being a weekend soldier in the Army Reserves. He was a good family man with stairstep children that matched my father’s children’s ages. He was a singing deacon at church and he made the male choir rock. He was my Boy Scout leader and was always patting me on the back for something I had done. It was always clear that I was his boy’s boy. Just like another father.
So even though I knew and respected Mr. Thomas for all that I knew about him, I would have loved to talk to him about his service. I would have liked to ask him what it was like to see himself and others not included in the movies and the history books. I would like to have known that I had a multi-language speaking genuine hero in my midst.
When you see the D-Day movies or any other movies that define our country it is important to get the full story. Men like Mr. Thomas and my dad were great role models for me. They taught me a lot and help me grow into the man I am today. But as I get older men like my dad and Mr. Thomas seem to be even more important to me and harder to find.
When you include the participation of men like Mr. Thomas in the stories of the making of America, you give more people, black people, a greater sense of ownership and involvement in the country. That can lead to a greater since of responsibility for the county that our fathers and mothers help build. That’s a much more productive attitude than to have black people think only white people built and shaped this country.
We are and have always been in this together. American heroes come from every branch of the American family tree. Let’s include everybody’s story and everyone’s contribution.
If you have a Mr. Thomas in your life, I encourage you to talk with them and share their stories. We are losing our heroes every day and we may need their example, so we can be heroes to the next generation.
Thanks Mr. Thomas. Happy Father’s Day and D-Day.