William Thomas (1923–1945)
William H. Thomas was born in Wynne on January 13, 1923, to lumber mill worker John Thomas and Jessie Thomas. The Thomas family, which included two daughters and four other sons, apparently moved around the Arkansas Delta, as the family lived in Trumann (Poinsett County) in 1930 and in Brinkley (Monroe County) by the mid-1940s.
William Thomas, who had worked as a farmer and timber worker, attempted to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1943 but was turned away because of a heart condition. He succeeded in 1944, entering the service at Camp Joseph T. Robinson in April. He shipped out as a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) gunner with Company B, 149th Infantry Regiment, Thirty-Eighth Infantry Division, and he was soon in action on Luzon in the Philippine Islands.
Private First Class Thomas was part of the leading element of a platoon of Company B, attacking a long, narrow ridge in the Zambales Mountains, when they came under fire from Japanese soldiers in camouflaged positions on April 22, 1945. Thomas was firing his BAR when a satchel charge landed between his legs, blowing off both legs below the knees. Medic Herman Forman said that, when Forman moved to his aid, “Private Thomas was firing his BAR. I tried to give him morphine and apply a tourniquet, but he refused to cease firing.” After a Japanese bullet disabled his weapon, Thomas threw his last two grenades before allowing Forman to treat his wounds.
The Medal of Honor citation states: “He destroyed 3 of the enemy after suffering the wounds from which he died later that day. The effective fire of Pfc. Thomas prevented the repulse of his platoon and assured the capture of the hostile position. His magnificent courage and heroic devotion to duty provided a lasting inspiration for his comrades.” Thomas is buried in the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines.
On August 30, 1946, the casualty evacuation ship USS Rixey was transferred to the Army Transportation Service and renamed the USAT Pvt. William H. Thomas. After the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) was established in 1949, the ship was transferred to the MSTS (essentially returning it to the U.S. Navy) in 1950. The USNS Pvt. William H. Thomas retained its army name, but it was assigned a U.S. Navy hull number: T-AP-185.
The ship was one of the first vessels to respond to distress calls from the cruise ship Andrea Doria when it began sinking after colliding with another ship off Nantucket, Massachusetts, on the night of July 25–26, 1956, ultimately rescuing 159 passengers. The Thomas was removed from service in 1957 and sold for scrap in 1970.
In 2003, the Arkansas National Guard armory in Wynne was named in honor of Thomas.
For additional information:
Medal of Honor Recipients 1863–1978, Prepared for the Committee on Veterans Affairs United States Senate, February 14, 1979. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1979.
Spencer, Christopher. “Armory Honors World War II Vet.” Arkansas Democrat Gazette, July 14, 2003, pp. 1B, 8B.
“USNS Pvt. William H. Thomas.” Maritime Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation. https://www.marad.dot.gov/about-us/maritime-administration-history-program/usdot-maritime-gallant-ship-award/usns-pvt-william-h-thomas/ (accessed March 2, 2018).
Mark K. Christ
Little Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated: 02/17/2020