Charles L. Thomas
The following article was written by Warren Cohen and appeared in the Michigan History Magazine in 1997.
Recognizing Valor - Profile of Charles Thomas, African-American World War II hero
The black soldier sat uncomfortably stiff, resembling his right arm that was choked tightly in a sting Captain Charles Thomas was at the center of attention, which, with the noticeable exception of the battlefield, was his least favorite spot. A throng of Detroit's black and white civic leaders stood and thunderously cheered the twenty-four-year-old war hero who had returned home injured from combat at the French-German border at the March 1945 celebration, Thomas became the second black soldier to receive the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second highest honor. In front of his admirers the soft-spoken serviceman played down his heroics. "I was just trying to stay alive out there" he remarked.
His fellow soldiers and officers weren't as modest. They believed Thomas deserved the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military tribute. The award is rarely given. Of the tens of millions of Americans who have served in the
But Thomas' bravery, along with other courageous acts by the 1.2 million African-American soldiers who fought in World War II, was ignored by a military establishment rife with racial prejudice. The armed forces had reluctantly drafted black soldiers after civil rights leaders and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt forced Congress to pass legislation ending discrimination in the military. Despite their eagerness to serve, black soldiers were frustrated by being placed in segregated units that were kept behind the fighting lines to perform medial tasks like cooking or driving. Such policies prevented many blacks from exhibiting heroism in battle. Those that did, like Thomas, were never properly recognized for their valor.
Now, over fifty years later, the military has rectified its long oversight. Early in 1995, following a three-year study by a Pentagon-selected team of historians, seven African American soldiers, including Thomas, were chosen to receive the Medal of Honor President Bill Clinton announced he will bestow the awards on 13 January 1997 during a ceremony at the White House.
Charles Thomas was born on 17 April 1920, in
He started as an infantryman but when the army began forming tank destroyer units, Thomas was transferred to
After training for two years, Thomas and his troops, weary of endless practice maneuvers, were eager to fight. Finally, in August 1944 the unit was shipped to
In December the 614th reached the Alsace-Lorraine region near the German border. Its mission was to capture the German-occupied town of
Thomas volunteered to lead his company up the hill. "Why did I volunteer?" he recalled in an oral history contained in Mary P. Motley's The Invisible Soldier: The Experience of the Black Soldier: World War Two. "I can't honestly answer that...perhaps somewhere in the back of my mind was the fact that we had the only guns that could match the firepower of the Mark VI tanks."
On the foggy morning of December 14, Thomas led a 250-man company up to the road in an armored scout car. As soon as the unit had advanced, the Germans fired a lethal combination of tank and artillery fire. One blast shattered the scout car's window, spraying Thomas with glass and metal shears. The next round blew the tires off the car. Although badly injured, Thomas scrambled onto the top of the vehicle, grabbed a .50 caliber machine gun and returned fire.
Suffering wounds in the chest, stomach, arms and legs, Thomas crawled under the overturned car and directed the placement of his men. His men tried to evacuate him but Thomas refused until he was sure that they were well-positioned and returning fire. "This was hardly the place to...I knew what had to be done," Thomas recalled. "They say men under stress can do unusual...I know I hung onto one thought, deploy the guns and start firing or we're dead."
Bogged down for five hours, the Americans ultimately wore the Germans out. Because the Germans were so engaged in fending off Thomas' men, the Americans crept through the woods and captured Climbach. The stunning victory exacted a heavy toll: more than half of the 614th suffered casualties. Colonel John Blackshear, a white commander, said the actions of the 614th were "the most magnificent display of mass heroism I have ever witnessed."
Thomas refused to take credit for his heroics, believing his soldiers deserved the accolades. Nevertheless, one week after the battle, Colonel Blackshear recommended Thomas for the Distinguished Service Cross. The award was announced in January 1945 and Thomas was promoted to captain. His unit was commemorated as well, becoming the first black battalion to win a distinguished unit citation. The men of the 614th also received eight silver stars, twenty-eight bronze stars and seventy-nine purple hearts.
(The photo below shows Thomas receiving his Distinguished Service Cross from
Brigadier General Joseph E. Bastion in 1945.)
The 614th continued across
In July 1949 Thomas married Bertha Thompson, a waitress at a local restaurant. -They had two children, Linda and Michael (Linda died young of cancer in 1962). Michael recalled that as a boy, when he and his father ran into old soldiers in
Thomas worked at Selfridge Field in
While Thomas remained silent about his war exploits, his right arm had withered noticeably. He usually kept it close to his side and never admitted to any pain. That disability was the sole mark of his years in the military. Thomas eschewed veterans groups and that, along with his modesty, caused people to slowly forget his accomplishments. When he died, the newspapers whose headlines once trumpeted his heroism neglected to run an obituary. Thomas's posthumous Medal of Honor will give this courageous soldier the recognition he shunned but deserved.
The following is the Thomas' citation for the Medal of Honor:
For extraordinary heroism in action on 14 December 1944, near
Charles Thomas died on February 15, 1980 and was buried in the Westlawn Cemetery in Wayne County Michigan.