Spotlight on Veteran John Dennis Thomson

As the nation celebrates Veterans Day, the State Bar of Texaswould like to honor some of those who served our country by spotlighting interviews from The Veterans’ History Project, a joint project between the Texas Court Reporters Association and the State Bar of Texas. The following post is an excerpt from an interview with John Dennis Thomson who served in the United States Air Force from 1958-1978.

MS. LONG: Do you remember arriving in Vietnam?

MR. THOMSON: Oh, yes.

MS. LONG: What was that like?

MR. THOMSON: Well, it was on Da Nang Air Base. And it was a huge base with a Marine establishment across the road from the Air Force establishment, so – but I actually – while I was assigned to 6924th Security Squadron that was down on Main Base Da Nang, I was actually assigned on top of Monkey Mountain at the Tactical Air Control Center North Sector, and provided special intelligence information to the commander and his staff that ran the control of all the aircraft in the north end of Vietnam.

MS. LONG: Wow. What was it like being in Vietnam?

MR. THOMSON: Well, actually, I had probably as soft a duty as anybody had because we were out of rocket range, and so when we could hear combat things going on we'd grab cameras and binoculars to look and see what we could see. But we were basically in a very, very safe location.

We traveled up the side of the mountain, and down at the end of the duty day every day. It seems like we were about 700 feet off the ground there.

MS. LONG: Did you see any combat in Vietnam?

MR. THOMSON: Well, there was -- I was assigned to this base that was down at Main Base Da Nang and there were regular rocket attacks, but fortunately we were out of rocket range where we were, so we grabbed cameras and binoculars and took pictures from up above.

MS. LONG: Tell me about a couple of your most memorable experiences while you were in Vietnam.

MR. THOMSON: Well, unequivocally the most memorable was the raid on the Sontay Prison Camp. That's S-O-N-T-A-Y.

I – the commander of Tactical Air Control Center North Sector was a full colonel who had, I can't remember how many years service, and I was there to support him with information that was above top secret information. And, so, my office was a little vault that was next to the tactical air control center. Because a top secret clearance didn't get you into the vault that was my space.

And we basically got the special intelligence information and passed it to the people that were authorized to have that out on the control center floor that was right next to us. And our -- our office space was probably not as big as this apartment, but it took a special intelligence clearance to get into that particular area.

And when the raid on the Sontay Prison Camp was being planned, I got called in to the colonel's office, and there were three colonels in his office, and we talked for maybe 10 minutes. And he had been a Doolittle Raider, so he was not a low-key individual, and they excused him and told him they'd be done with his office – we'd be done with his office in about 45 minutes, and they excused this colonel.

MS. LONG: What is a Doolittle Raider?

MR. THOMSON: Oh, that was a raid in World War II –

MS. LONG: Okay.

MR. THOMSON: – that was a significant thing. And, you know, I wasn't there for World War II.

MS. LONG: Sure.

MR. THOMSON: But he was one of the pilots that had flown in Europe on that particular raid.

And, so, anyway, one of the things that they told me was that they needed me to run a extension cord on the special intelligence telephone, out of our special intelligence area that was about the size of this, out onto the operations floor where the individuals were controlling the aircraft that were flying over northern South Vietnam and North Vietnam. And I was supposed to run an extension cord out there to one of the radar places.

And during the raid I sat next to General Manor that ran the raid, and fed him information that wasn't supposed to be out in that particular area so that he had the latest information on what was going on at the time.

MS. LONG: How long did – did the raid last?

MR. THOMSON: Oh, probably – probably – from the time we set up till it was completely over it was probably somewhere between three and five hours.

MS. LONG: Wow.

MR. THOMSON: And when we got north – the raid was unsuccessful because the POWs had been moved from that site to another location, so we didn't pick up anybody at all in that raid.

The other interesting thing to me about that is that I went to – I don't even remember what school it was – after I was back here in San Antonio. And I went to – a terrorism school. And at the terrorism school – this was two or three years after the Vietnam War situation. And the colonel that was running the terrorism school was introduced as one of the raiders who would have been picked up had Sontay Raid been successful.

MS. LONG: Wow.

MR. THOMSON: So I – when we had our first break – I was a captain at the time – went up and introduced myself and explained to him that – what had – how I had been involved in that. And he said, "Captain, I don't know what your plans were, but we're having dinner tonight so we can talk."

And they had actually been moved – apparently unrelated to the raid, but they were – had been moved to a camp that was close enough that they could hear and figured out what was going on. And he said, "It didn't make any difference that you didn't get us, because we knew you tried." But it still impacts on me. Read the full interview.

Spotlight on Veteran Jerry Davis Minton

As the nation celebrates Veterans Day, the State Bar of Texas would like to honor some of those who served our country by spotlighting interviews from The Veterans’ History Project, a joint project between the Texas Court Reporters Association and the State Bar of Texas. The following post is an excerpt from an interview with Jerry Davis Minton who served in the United States Air Force from 1951-1955. 

MR. KUBES: Tell me about a couple of your most memorable experiences.

MR. MINTON: You mean missions?

MR. KUBES: Yes.

MR. MINTON: Well, one that I remember very clearly was on Christmas Eve of 1952. By that time I was a flight commander. I was made a flight commander, I think, on December the 1st, '52. They assigned our flight, which was A-flight of the 80th, for a night mission on Christmas Eve, and I took it. And as I told you, we didn't really have the equipment for all-weather, and when I went out to the airplane, preflighted it, it was snowing and the ceiling was very low, and – which I didn't like, but, you know, it didn't make any difference what you liked. That was what you were assigned.

And I took off and it was in the overcast almost immediately, popped out on top, and went up north of the assigned section of the MSR, which was just south of Sinanju, North Korea. And it was clear on top and then in the front, but the snow disappeared by the time I got the other side of our front lines. I remember flying about 30 miles west of Pyonyang. It was their capital then and the enemy capital today. And I was surprised to see lights all over Pyonyang; not like Fort Worth or New York or something on Christmas Eve, but a lot of lights, and it kind of surprised me.

But I found a – I found a convoy and dropped on them, and I was really apprehensive about making an approach back to the base in snow and low ceilings. The only approach we would have had would have been the so-called GCI approach, ground-controlled instrument approach, which we didn't practice very often. And I got back to about 15 miles south of our lines and looked up ahead of me at the base, and the thing had cleared out and the stars were out. And I was one happy pilot because I wasn't going to have to make an approach in the snow.

And when I got back to the quarters, people had champagne and other things and all the goodies that they had gotten from home, and they were having a Christmas Eve celebration. And I – I just thought that was absolutely great. I was glad to get that one out of the way and then celebrate Christmas Eve. It was nice. Read the full interview.

Spotlight on Veteran John Dwight Burcham

As the nation celebrates Veterans Day, the State Bar of Texas would like to honor some of those who served our country by spotlighting interviews from The Veterans’ History Project, a joint project between the Texas Court Reporters Association and the State Bar of Texas. The following post is an excerpt from an interview with John Dwight Burcham who served in the United States Army Air Corps from 1942-1945.

MR. TARRANCE: You were running out of gas? 

MR. BURCHAM: Running out of gas and running out  daylight. And so the navigator, he's so distraught, he  said, I'll jump out. I'll jump out. I said you can jump  out if you want to. Everybody else is going to stay. So  you do what you want but whatever you do, do it now  because we're going down. And so I drug the field with  the landing lights on. It was that dark. The field — the beach. And I couldn't see anything. It looked fairly  level. So I said boys, we're going in. 

And so after buzzing it a couple of times, I came in  and touched down. And boy, it was – I thought, oh, boy,  this is nice. I can't believe it's that smooth. And all  of a sudden we hit a ditch. The nose wheel went out and the sparks from the nose gear coming up just filled the  cockpit absolutely. It was just like a ton of fire. And  then when the nose wheel let go, then the left main gear  let go and the left wing went down in the sand and the  engine on the side went down in the sand. So all of a  sudden we were there. We went up – the tail went up  vertical. I swear it was vertical because in that ditch – it went up on the nose of the airplane. And I thought  we're going to burn. All of a sudden it stopped there and  settled back down on the tail. 

And I got out of a window I swear wasn't much bigger  than that (indicating). I knew I couldn't help the guys  in the back so I thought we all need to do the best we  could to get away before it exploded. And it was a pretty  good drop down there to the sand. But, anyway, I got out.  This whole time I was the calmest I think I've ever been.  I never got excited. I never got afraid. And I jumped  out and ran away where I thought I was far enough from the  airplane that I knew it was going to explode and my knees  just gave out. All of a sudden, I just, woe. We had the  right wing was up in the air as a result of the left wing  being in the sand so we got on the radio again, tried to  raise somebody, couldn't raise anybody. 

MR. TARRANCE: Everybody got out all right? 

MR. BURCHAM: Everybody got out. One of the belly– the belly gunner got hit by a gun and just got a small cut  on his forehead, and that's the only person who was  injured at all. 

So we got out and everybody got out and since  the number four engine was up in the air, we got it  started. That's when we tried to call on the radio and  couldn't raise anybody. So I said, well, somebody has got  to go downtown where this town – we didn't even know  where we were. And it was Reggio de Calabria which was an  old town on the Mediterranean there just across the  straits of Messina from Italy. So I selected a guy name  Tex. I've forgotten his name now. He was our top gunner.  He was from Nocona, Texas. He and I – all we had was our  45's. We started in towards town. And what I wanted to  do is call the Air Force. 

So I ran into – we ran into a donkey-drawn cart and  we talked them into taking us into town and to the Mayor's  office. He was very gracious. He called – got Rome on  the phone for me – Air Corps in Rome – headquarters in  Rome. I told them we were down. Nobody was hurt. The  airplane was not flyable out. And so they said, well,  we'll send somebody for you as soon as we can. Well,  three weeks later – we lived under the wing of the  airplane for three weeks. Read the full interview.

Spotlight on Veteran John Mark Blaze

As the nation celebrates Veterans Day, the State Bar of Texas would like to honor some of those who served our country by spotlighting interviews from The Veterans’ History Project, a joint project between the Texas Court Reporters Association and the State Bar of Texas. The following post is an excerpt from an interview with John Mark Blaze who served in the United States Coast Guard from 1942-1945. 

Our ship would go all over the Philippine Islands to Mindanao to Samar to Kurgan to Borneo, wherever American troops were that needed stuff, we would bring it to them. In Mindanao, we had a gun fight. My – my eyes were burned up pretty bad. So then they had to take me from there to back to Manila and put me on a hospital ship, the auxiliary hospital, called the Refuge AH1, Auxiliary Hospital 1, the Refuge.

They left my sea bags and everything on the ship. Now, I had no ship – I had no place to go except be on the ear, eyes, nose, and throat there.

A little story happens while I was a patient on eyes, nose, and throat ward there. My eyes were bandaged. My mail was brought to me from my wife, and they stuck it under the pillow of my bed, and they said that there would be somebody within the next two or three days come by to be able to read my mail to me.

In the meantime, a sailor came up and asked me – said, Hey, Sailor, do you mind if I read your letters to you? I said, Yeah, please. And he looked at the postmark, and he said, You're from Crown Point, Indiana? I said, No, I'm from Gary. He said, I'm from Gary, too. And so the story goes. We met there in a little ward in the Philippines about 12, 13,000 miles away from home.

Now, I never seen the guy, and he had what they called infectious sinus. They could – nothing could cure him, because the only medicines they had at that time was penicillin. So they had to take him back to the United States. Now, I didn't have his name written down or nothing. I woke up the next day, and I asked about the guy who read the letters, and he said he's gone. He left.

About five years later, I was a chef at a restaurant in Gary. A guy came in to sell me meat, and he was a driver for the Wonder Bread Company, and he was kind of black market at that time, and he had a shelf underneath his truck that he had – a dry ice down there, and he had meat he was trying to sell to restaurants and whatnot. And he kept pestering me for about three or four days, and I wouldn't buy any meat from him.

Then he asks me, he said, Were you in service? And I said, Yeah. He said, I was, too. He said, Where were you? I said, South Pacific. He said, Mine was, too. He said, But I got a medical discharge. I had an infectious sinus. I said, Oh my God, were you on the Refuge? He said, Yeah. His name was Frank Jason, and we became lifelong friends after that. Read the full interview.

Veterans Day Op-Ed, by State Bar of Texas President Buck Files

If you had been at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on October 9, you might have been curious as to the VIP’s who were being interviewed by television crews and visited with by other passengers. Were they politicians or movie stars or successful businessmen? No, they were World War II veterans who were participating in the Honor Flight Program that would fly them to our nation’s capital so that they could see the World War II Memorial. These veterans were part of “the Greatest Generation.” They are all truly treasures of our nation as are all of those who have served our great country through military service.

On Veterans Day, there will be parades and ceremonies and speeches and veterans of all our wars will be honored. During their service, all lived the words of President John F. Kennedy: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

And then the parades and ceremonies and speeches will be over and it will be another year before some Americans remember or have any concern for the 22.7 million veterans who live in these United States, including the more than 1.7 million who live in Texas. While all of us know somebody who served, we rarely think about what happens to these men and women when they are no longer in the military. We know that some of them use benefits to get an education. We know that there are Veterans Hospitals and Veterans Offices where other kinds of support is available. We don’t really know what assistance exists but we assume that it is adequate.

Only about one-half of one percent of our population is currently serving on active duty. We have an all-volunteer military but that does not in any way diminish their service to our country. To be sure, our nation has responded to assist veterans with programs on the local, state and national levels. Many of those benefits, without question, help – but far too many of our veterans continue to require assistance with medical, housing, employment, and post-traumatic stress disorder issues. Numerous organizations and non-profits have been created to help our veterans. All of these programs are needed and used. As a country, we owe it to our veterans — who have risked everything to protect our democracy — to treat them like the heroes that they are.

Two years ago, the State Bar of Texas recognized that there was a hole in services for veterans and launched Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans. Lawyers across our state have volunteered to provide free assistance to veterans and their families who cannot afford basic legal services. Lawyer organizations have joined with the Veterans Commission, the Veterans Administration, and others to do their part to help our veterans. Through clinics coordinated by our local bar associations, Texas lawyers have served more than 6,000 veterans since 2010 and our program continues to grow. You can find out more about this program at texasbar.com/veterans.

On this Veterans Day, let us do more than honor the men and women who have served to protect our rights and freedom. Let us make a commitment to our veterans that they will receive the assistance that they need and deserve. They earned it.

Buck Files, a criminal defense lawyer from Tyler, is president of the State Bar of Texas. He served on active duty in the United States Marine Corps from December, 1963 until August, 1967.