Bradley Thomas was 18 when he went into the Army. Following basic training in Wyoming, Thomas shipped out to England where he was prepared to take part in the Invasion of Normandy. -- Special photo
CONYERS -- Cheyenne, Wyo., for basic training was an unfamiliar environment for WWII veteran and Monticello native Bradley Thomas. Of his first venture out of Georgia at age 18, he said of Wyoming, "It was freezing!"
Born into a farming family, Thomas' life was changed forever by Pearl Harbor.
"My dad knew he would eventually lose me to the war effort," Thomas said. "I was 15 when Pearl was bombed, a farming boy; in 1943, at the age of 18, I was on my way to war."
Once trained, Thomas shipped from New Jersey aboard RMS Queen Elizabeth I with the 3104th Quartermasters to Prescott, England, near Liverpool.
"We were preparing for June 6, 1944, D-Day, the Invasion of Normandy," he said.
As an African-American in a segregated military, Thomas said, "The segregation pretty much stopped when we got to England. War doesn't discriminate; we needed each other."
Thomas hit Omaha Beach around 6 p.m. the day of invasion.
"The boys in the morning waves paid a terrible price for that strip of sand," he said.
The Americans had gained a beachhead by early afternoon, but the fighting was far from over.
"I had to dig my foxhole in a cow pasture," Thomas recalled. "We figured the cows could step on the land mines; they did, and we survived."
As with many soldiers, Thomas was assigned to different units as the need arose. He spent over a month unloading supplies to support the advance from Normandy, then worked his way through France, Belgium, and into Germany with frontline units.
"On one moonlit night German planes came over and dropped a few bombs on us," he said. "I was caught in the open. I laid down between two railroad tracks, but one of our guys was so scared he dove headfirst into the latrine. We all laughed, but he said, 'Go ahead, laugh, but I'm still livin'!' Those German planes came in so low you could have hit them with a baseball bat."
With the cold and snow, the ground froze hard as concrete.
"I still remember the planes strafing us one day and the bullets didn't penetrate the ground. They ricocheted off the hard surface."
On another occasion in a railroad yard, Thomas looked up to see a German fighter dropping a bomb, seemingly right at him. "I thought I was a goner," he said. The bomb hit nearby, wrapping a large section of railroad track around a building. "I've always been thankful it was the track and not me," he said.
In the cold and snow and frozen ground, Hitler launched the Battle of the Bulge.
"We were being overrun," Thomas said. "We hastily threw equipment onto freight trains and began the retreat, all the way to Liege, Belgium."
The German offensive eventually ran out of steam, and more importantly, fuel.
On another occasion, Thomas and seven other men were ordered to guard 80 German prisoners.
"That was troubling," he said. "Eighty against eight, not good odds, but we were never challenged. One night after a work detail, I tripped and fell into a pothole, but two German prisoners pulled me out. They treated me fairly, so I treated them fairly, within reason, of course."
Thomas recalled a two-day respite in Belgium, early on in the war.
"We went into a Belgium movie theater," he said. "The movie suddenly stopped, the lights came on, and the kids gathered around us. They thought because we were black we were camouflaged, and were surprised to find out our skin color didn't rub off, nor did our hair. They talked to us a long time; they wanted to learn about Afro-Americans."
On fighting a war and racial injustice, Thomas stated, "You know, I received five battle stars and an honorable discharge. I fought and served my country but came home to a racially hostile environment in Georgia. We moved to Ohio, but that wasn't a whole lot better, and decent jobs were scarce for us. I learned construction, carpentry, electrical work, and plumbing, got licensed, got self-employed, my own boss. That worked out a lot better."
Bradley Thomas has seen a lot of change in his lifetime.
"I remember the days when blacks were ordered to the back of buses; separate water fountains, hatred because of color. Laws can change, but people have to change with them," he said.
Recently, Thomas flew to Washington, D.C., on an Honor Flight for WWII veterans and received the welcome he missed after WWII.
"I was surprised," he said. "The honor and respect given me was wonderful. Kids wanted to hear my story. I received applause for my service. I heard 'thank you' a hundred times. I realized that things had changed, that guys didn't die for nothing. Those guys are dead and gone, but thanks to them I saw the changes, the changes we needed."
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist, and free-lance writer. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.