Still tells a good story
By Jan Castle Renander
(reprinted by permission)
Jack Thompson of Red Oak says he used to be shy, but got over that and now he tells a great story! Jack Thompson during his Navy days. In an early family portrait, Jack with his sister Jean.
When Jack Thompson graduated from Elliott High School in 1944 he knew the draft would not take long to find him.
“I worked that summer with a local guy who ran a Caterpillar and we did dirt work all over,” Jack recalls. “I made good money. $1/an hour for 11-hour days. But that winter, I knew I’d be drafted and I really didn’t want to be in the army, so I went to Omaha and joined the Navy.”
Once a quiet and shy young man, today Jack enjoys telling stories from his navy years because they were an eye-opener for a small-town Iowa boy “who hadn’t hardly ever been out of the county!”
Jack’s first Navy experience involved sick bay. He caught a cold which developed into pneumonia, complicated by the mumps. After his first six weeks of training at a naval station in Chicago, he had a five-day leave and came home to visit. Then he shipped out on a troop train for the five-day journey to San Francisco. Unbeknownst to him, his younger brothers and sisters exposed him to mumps, so that added to his misery.
“I was in sick bay for three weeks and it seemed like forever,”
Penicillin was a relatively new drug in use at that time and Jack was given an injection every two hours.
“I figured out that was 360 shots!” he laughs. “But it worked.”
Still weakened from his sickness, Jack returned to active duty after three weeks. But by then the rest of his troop had shipped out so he had to be reassigned. He ended up on board the USS Adair bound for Hawaii. They docked just off Waikiki Beach.
“We were there for three days. Of course, we didn’t get off the ship.”
After stocking up, the ship set out for the Marshall Islands. Jack remembers the journey vividly.
“My bunk was three decks down and the racks (beds) were five high,” he begins. “My bunk was on the top, fortunately. I could hear the water rolling and thought surely we were going down. Somebody overflowed the water in the head (bathroom) on the deck above us and it came running down. Those guys on the bottom bunks were just inches out of that water!”
While on shipboard in the Marshall Islands, the troops waited for another assignment. Jack remembers long days with few distractions.
“One time they took some of us to a small island and I mean small. It probably only had one tree! They gave us three cans of hot beer and we stripped down to our shorts and went swimming. The coral was wicked there and you’d get cut up real bad.”
Finally, the troops learned what they were waiting for: they were part of the force build-up for an invasion of Japan. “I learned later that the US had 50,000 people lined up for that invasion,” Jack says. “But we didn’t know it then. One day the ship news reported that we had been waiting for the invasion of Japan but the US had dropped the atomic bomb and the war was over. “Well, we asked ‘What’s an atomic bomb?’ We didn’t know what that was!” With the war’s end, Jack was transferred to a repair ship – a job that suited his natural mechanical abilities. Also, there was always something to repair so he was able to keep busy. Time for another story.
“We had our sea bag, our hammock and a mattress and we lashed and tied that all together into a big ball,” Jack begins. “Then we would throw that over the side and down into the boat, then we’d climb down. The guy in front of me, I don’t know what kind of man he was, but he didn’t tie his very well because when he dropped it over the side it came apart and stuff went everywhere! I threw mine over and it stayed together. Apparently an Iowa farm boy can tie a knot!”
Jack’s ship spent a lot of time in Tokyo Bay, which he remembers as crowded with ships and rolling water.
“We actually got on shore twice, but there wasn’t anything there. It was all burned down. There was one store and I remember it sold kimonos and, well, a lot of the young men had girlfriends back home and they wanted to send them a kimono. They cost $18. I didn’t have $18, so I bought a derby hat. Paid $2 for it and put it in my locker on ship and someone stole it. I found out that not everyone is honest.”
Another time, Jack saw first-hand the effects of the war’s devastation on Japan. He was part of a small crew delivering supplies to another vessel in Yokosuka.
“All of a sudden, we heard a bunch of racket and here come a little kid carrying a sandwich – a two slice sandwich – and he was running for dear life. Here come five others after him! We saw one family who had made their home in a clam shell. That was all the shelter they had. The US had firebombed Japan and it was terrible.”
Jack remembers several instances in which he thought he was going to meet his maker, but none involved combat. A small-town boy, Jack never learned to swim so the idea of his ship being sunk or capsized always frightened him. He remembers riding out a typhoon on shipboard and watching as two destroyers, also trying to ride out the strong winds and rolling waves, passed his ship – missing it by less than 200 feet.
During another storm Jack remembers that the pin came out of the tiller handle, leaving the small boat at the mercy of the waves.
“Those waves came up high and turned the boat sideways and I thought, ‘this is it.’ But the other guys finally got the tiller handle back on and we made it through.”
Eventually Jack was assigned onto a Liberty ship and headed for the United States. The journey took 18 days and at one point, Jack was called to take his turn at helm watch – steering the ship.
“The guy I relieved showed me what to do. There was a big compass and a wheel. He said the ship was not going to steer straight. That it would roll back and forth and I just had to keep it centered on that heading. Well, I did and then the officers in charge decided to change course a little and gave me a different heading. They had a coffee pot up there so they had coffee to drink. All of a sudden we took a roll that you wouldn’t believe. The coffee pot went flying and they yelled at me to go back to the first heading. Fortunately, I remembered what it was. The captain came up and wanted to know what was going on. Perhaps we should change course, but the officers convinced him we should stay on the course we had. I was sure glad helm watch was only two hours!”
Once docked off Washington State, Jack and some other sailors got shore leave.
“Four of us went to a movie and we’re sitting in the theatre and all of a sudden, everything started shaking. People were screaming and we didn’t know what was going on. Then the shaking quit and then it started up again. We just sat there. We didn’t know anything. It was an earthquake and we just sat there!”
Once discharged, Jack bought a train ticket to Omaha and then a bus ticket to Red Oak. He remembers hitch-hiking home from Red Oak and surprising his family in Elliott.
“I walked around to the back door and walked in, “Hi Mom! It was good to be home.”
Back home Jack needed work and began by driving a truck until he applied for a surveyor’s job with the Montgomery County secondary roads division. He was hired.
“At that, the county was building a lot of roads, so they kept us pretty busy,” he recalls. Soon, he transferred to the county shop and spent the next few years – 44 to be exact – keeping county road equipment in good working condition. “We worked on everything. We overhauled engines, rebuilt engines. We did it all,” Jack says.
In 1958, Jack married a young schoolteacher, Marilyn Moon. She was teaching in Texas at that time and they honeymooned in Mexico before returning to Iowa. Marilyn taught in the Red Oak School District for nearly 40 years prior to her retirement. She and Jack had one daughter, Jamie Jo. She now lives in California.
At age 84, Jack still lives in Red Oak. Marilyn passed away in 1998 and Jack is physically hampered by arthritis and damage to the sciatic nerve, but he still keeps in touch with family and friends. As the oldest of six children, he has many nieces and nephews plus cousins throughout the county. When his health allowed he was active in the Montgomery County Veterans Memorial Court of Honor and still keeps tabs on veteran activities. He enjoys sharing stories and has begun writing them down so the memories will never fade.