Presentation Date: April 26, 2007
1st Sergeant Ralph Thomas Parachute Infantry Regiment (Ret.)
1st Sergeant, Company C, 1st Battalion, 508th PIR (Parachute Infantry Regiment) in the 82nd Airborne Division. Jumped on D-Day into Normandy and also into Holland on Operation Market Garden ("A Bridge Too Far") 1st Sergeant, Company C, 1st Battalion, 508th PIR (Parachute Infantry Regiment) in the 82nd Airborne Division. Jumped on D-Day into Normandy and also into Holland on Operation Market Garden ("A Bridge Too Far") Ralph Thomas was born and raised in a small town in Oklahoma. Ralph’s dad knew the world-renowned flier Wiley Post, and one day when Ralph was 12 years old, about a dozen family and friends went to Oklahoma City to see the aviator. Ralph got to ride in Post’s plane, Winnie Mae.
“When they went on his last flight (to Alaska, in 1935 with journalist Will Rogers) I told my dad he’ll never come back. It really upset my father. And sure enough, they didn’t.”
With the attack on Pearl Harbor, Ralph joined the Army, and in the course of one year’s training, progressed from recruit to PFC to 1st Sergeant.
“I went to where you volunteer and went right into the paratroops. I didn’t want to go into anything else. It took us 3-4 days to get to Camp Blanding, Florida. The regiment was there with all its officers. They’re turning over all the time. I made corporal and then buck sergeant in the first month. The reason was, it was a new regiment. Just before I want to jump school I made 1st Sgt. I’m very proud of that because I loved that regiment.”
When they went to Normandy, Thomas remembers all the planes flying out over Land’s End and across the ocean. There was a submarine out there with a light on the top of a pole, which you couldn’t see from down low. And when his C-47 got to that submarine it turned left and flew between Jersey and Guernsey Islands.
“The flak came up and it didn’t overlap and we just flew right on and climbed up above the cliffs at Normandy. About five minutes in, the red light came on and my ’stick’ came out. It was a perfect landing.
“I landed in a pasture and was trying to get out of my chute when I heard something coming toward me. I rolled over, got out my knife and got all ready… and it was a cow. She walked right up and licked me in the face.”
All of his “stick” of 18 men jumped without incident, but Thomas says they did have a challenge in finding the rest of their unit.
“From there I took my stick and we started making our way - - we didn’t know it was St. Mere Eglise - - we just could see this fire. All along the way other men would join and I’d put them in at the back of the line. By happenstance, we walked right in to division headquarters.”
There, a Lt. Col met him and asked what regiment he was from and how many he brought with him. Thomas replied he had about twenty soldiers, due to the troops picked up along the way.
The officer counted and came back to tell Thomas, ”You’ve got 43 men, and the last three men are Majors. I asked them what they were doing back there, are they told me, ’He’s doing a good enough job. So, we thought we’d just leave him alone and let him… everybody’s quite happy.”
Thomas was told his regimental commander was down by a river, and was “so mad because not a one of the men with him had a gun. They all had typewriters.”
In disbelief, Thomas took his stick of troops down to the commander, where he recalls that he “almost kissed me. He said, ’If we ever do this again, they’re going to take rifles.”
Thomas said a Colonel sent for him to take a house occupied by about eight German troops. Two lieutenants were there, but they had rifles. Thomas was carrying a Thompson .45 cal submachine gun.
“I went into the basement and fired through the floor. I went back two or three times to get more ammunition. The last time the Colonel said to wait a minute. They threw a dead German out the door.
“They came out the front door, and were all in shock. They all wanted to touch me, they wanted to pat my face. I almost cried.
“The Colonel said, ‘Are you going to shoot ‘em?’ and I replied, ’No.’
“So he asked, ‘what can we do with them?’
Thomas pointed out a calf barn they could be put into, with a paratrooper to watch over them. Many of the men were badly wounded, although they could still walk to the shelter. Before long, Thomas says, German artillery rounds started raining down.
“I never knew what happened to those men. I’m sure several of them died from their wounds.”
Soon German troops counterattacked across a nearby causeway, but Thomas says the assault was halted by Allied artillery back on the beachhead.
Thomas says the lull after the failed German counterattack gave time for units to better sort themselves out and he began leading a platoon from his headquarters company in more directed battles across Normandy.
One of those was the clearing of a village, and became the first of a few incidents giving Thomas a reputation for sensing things about to happen.
“We were all strung out under a lot of trees, like a hedgerow and something said to me ‘move’. They (my men) didn’t want to move and I had to kick them to move them back. Then the German artillery came in and… it would have killed everybody.”
After that, “men from other companies wanted to come and join me. They thought I had this special instinct.”
Thomas says his company had jumped into Normandy with 128 men. Many were killed the first day, and by the end the first month only about 20 men were left. Thomas says it was at that time when commanding Officer of the 82nd Airborne Division in Normandy, Maj. General James Gavin came up and spoke to him.
“He met me twice in the field and always put his head on my shoulder. And this day he said, ‘you know paratroopers don’t give up land. You’ve got to go back and take that hill.’
Thomas said he’d do that, but he asked Gavin for a tank destroyer to help defeat an enemy bunker. Gavin told the aide to send in Thomas’ request and in a few minutes a tank destroyer rolled in.
“The Germans, or what we thought were Germans, had built dugouts of logs and dirt, with slits in them. I told this captain to aim right at those and he did. When we got up there he’d taken the top of all these guys’ heads off.
“They weren’t Germans, they were Mongolians and they had been in the Russian front and the Germans had captured them.”
Thomas believed the Germans threatened to shoot the Mongolians if they refused to fight for the Third Reich on the Western Front.
One of the starkest experiences in Normandy involved discovering a German battalion of about 500 men that had been wiped out. Thomas recalled the unit had been motorized with light halftrack/motorcycles called Kettenkraftrads. He says a Captain named Barry Albright had called in an artillery barrage with airburst charges, which decimated the German troops.
“As we walked down this road, having already seen a lot of death, it really shook my men up. About halfway through it, a rifle went off. One of my men had shot one of these Germans because he was quivering. You never know how a person’s going to react, particularly a young man, when he’s seen that much death.
Shortly thereafter, Thomas’s unit got a weekend’s relief from the stress of constant fighting and the deprivations of living in the front lines.
He says he sent three men back to the beachhead to board one of the larger landing craft. When they returned, Thomas recalls they came to him in tears, saying, “Those Navy sons-of-bitches. They’ve got ice cream and sheets and they can take a bath every day. We haven’t had a bath for a month.”
When the remains of the 508th came back to Southampton after the Normandy Invasion, Thomas recalls the older British men and women turned out to welcome them, waving small American flags and Union Jacks. They asked where the rest of the men were, and Thomas replied that they were seeing all the men who had survived.
Rest and regrouping came at Nottingham, where some men who were ambulatory rejoined the unit. Thomas remembered talking with trooper Trino Maldonado, who would stand on one leg and shift back and forth, giving his fellow paratroopers a challenge in getting him to stand at attention when before an officer.
Maldonado, says Thomas, told him that he’d been late returning from leave in England because he’d gotten married. Thomas explained that the paratrooper had a heartwarming excuse for his tardiness:
“He said, ‘I got married for my father. He’s an old man who has small children because my mother died. So I married this woman and you can send her my allotment, because she is happy, and so is he.‘
There was sunshine on September 17, 1944, as the 82nd Airborne prepared to parachute into the Netherlands. Its mission was to secure bridges across rivers so the Allied army could advance rapidly to the north and skirt German defenses known as the Siegfried Line. If the plan worked as designed, the war in Europe was to have ended by Christmas 1944.
By parachute and glider, 34,600 men of the 101st, 82nd, 1st Airborne Divisions and the Polish Brigade descended as far as 150 km behind enemy lines. An aerial convoy of more than 1,700 transport planes and converted RAF bombers towed gliders and dropped paratroopers, vehicles, guns, ammunition and supplies over several days.
On September 17th, Ralph Thomas says his plane was stopped just as it began rolling out to take off, and a major and a captain came up to him.
“The Captain looked like my granddad to me. And this Major said, ‘Thomas you’re still jumpmaster and in charge of this airplane. But when you get on the ground, this Captain is your new company commander. ‘ “
The Captain sat next to Thomas and they took off for a short flight in beautiful weather with unlimited visibility, perfect conditions for an airdrop. As their C-47 crossed the Dutch coast, Thomas says the captain commented to him, “I didn’t know it hailed in the sunshine.”
“That isn’t hail. That’s flak,” replied Thomas.
The 82nd Airborne was dropped with high accuracy and its troops quickly took two bridges. The Division’s other tasks were to seize the Groesbeek Heights, block any German armor attack from the nearby Reichswald and deny the hills to enemy artillery observers.
The 508th Regiment, targeted northeast of the Dutch town of Groesbeek, was to take the 600-yard-long Nijmegen highway bridge if possible, but because of miscommunication did not start until late in the day on the17th. Had they attacked earlier, they would have faced a handful of Germans, instead of being stopped by arriving troops of an SS Recon Battalion. Nijmegen Bridge remained in German hands.
Overnight, German forces counterattacked, threatening a designated landing zone for artillery and reinforcements. Though outnumbered, the 508th reclaimed the ground, and B-24s were able to make their drops, of which 80% was recovered.
After one of the nighttime German attacks, Thomas says his Captain lost his nerve and panicked:
“He ran through the company headquarters, shouting, ‘Everybody run!’ Nobody ran but him, and I chased him but I couldn’t catch him. You’ve seen pictures of a body with legs out in front of the body, and that’s what I could see. He outran me and he was a lot older than I was.”
Thomas and the captain ran right into the battalion commander, whose men ultimately stopped the captain and relieved him of his command. A similar fate befell the 508th’s executive officer as the unit was preparing for another battle near Nijmegen:
“We were on a road going to a jump-off place for a battle and I had the point. This exec officer, a Lt. Col, was talking to me but wasn’t making sense. We came to a ‘T’ and we turned left while he turned right off into a briar patch. I halted the whole column and got two or three men and we got him out. And he’s still just mumbling. By then a jeep had driven up with staff officers.”
When Thomas told the newly arrived officers what had happened, they told Thomas to clear the soldiers away while the mumbling officer was set down on the ground, propped against the jeep’s tire. Thomas later learned the Lt. Col’s was demoted to a lieutenant, but that he’d joined up with a rifle regiment and returned to combat.
As Market Garden continued, the paratroopers were re-supplied by glider trains—C-47s towing gliders—escorted by P-51s, P-38s and Spitfires, to prevent Luftwaffe fighters from shooting down the transports. One of the glider trains provided the paratroopers a dramatic show, when a line of Me-109s abreast appeared.
“We got out of our foxholes and stood up and it took about five minutes for the Americans and British to knock every one these guys down. One of my men told me he was going to go over to where he saw this guy dive in. It was just like someone had sawed off his wing.
“My man came back with a glove, and he said, ‘I took the hand out.’ He wanted a souvenir.”
A few days later, British troops arrived to relieve the 82nd Airborne at Nijmegen, and the sound of some hobnailed boots (the British Army in Europe wore hobnailed boots, as did the Germans) led to a strained meeting for Thomas:
“I’m going down this gravel road, more like a cow path, and I hear this person. I don’t know if he’s a German or what. So I stepped over into the bushes and when he got right with me where I could see him I said, ‘Well, hi! Welcome.’
Thomas says a British major, carrying a riding crop and walking like he was on parade, jumped sideways when he heard the voice from the roadside. As anger spread across the major’s face, he asked why Thomas was there in place of a higher-ranking officer. Thomas told him, “We didn’t know who you were.”
Market Garden provided Ralph Thomas a few more moments of memorable entertainment. One was an odd revelation involving a German artillery barrage, where a good number of shells failed to explode when they hit the ground.
British sappers were called in to dig some of the large shells out of the ground and blow them up.
“Each one of the shells had rags in it and a note from Czechoslovakians, who were slave laborers. The notes said, ‘This is our part of the war.’ ”
There was also an incident involving fellow paratrooper Trino Maldonado.
Thomas said the soldier came to him at battalion headquarters one day, very nervous about a peculiar problem he was having.
“He had dug a foxhole, four feet by eight, with steps into it, and covered the door with a tarp. He said, ‘I’m having problems. When I come in at night to go to sleep, and I smoke my last cigarette, all these eyes come out.’”
Thomas and Maldonado entered the foxhole and pulled the tarp over the entryway to see what happened in the darkness.
“He lit a cigarette, and I knew what was wrong. When you dig a hole in Holland, and every time your shovel hits, these little frogs come out. When you puff on a cigarette their eyes light up. And they were all over this place!”
Thomas says one other oddity of his tour in Holland came when his unit went to a public bath. When the soldiers got undressed for the baths, “a little lady handed us a towel and while everybody tried to cover up, she said, ‘Oh don’t bother about me, just go on’ in pretty good English.” When entering the pool area, the soldiers looked up to see a plate glass window covering the whole end of an adjacent building.
“There were secretaries just typing away and laughing at us… So when you’re in combat and suffering, you also have some fun times, too.”
After it was relieved, the 508th marched westward into Belgium, and then was transported in British lorries to near the French border. Sitting on the tailgate of a lorry was where Thomas faced his biggest challenge of the war.
British lorries were high and narrow, compared with their American counterparts, and they tip easily. Thomas says he thinks the driver of the lorry he was riding in had fallen asleep at the wheel and driven off the road.
“We hit a land mine, which blew the truck up. And the truck came down on top of me. The battalion surgeon crawled under and said, ‘Ralph, we don’t know how to get the truck off of you. There’s a tank retriever behind us, but the operator feels if he tried to move the truck, he’d just grind you into the ground.’
Thomas was still conscious and he says he felt okay, though he wasn’t aware his left foot had been broken and was up around his hip. He told the driver to use the winch hook on the lorry bumper to ease it up a little bit and he could be pulled free.
“They did, and the moment I was free I went unconscious. The doctor tagged me ‘Dead or dying’ and they put me in an ambulance. I ran around a couple of days in it before they put me in the morgue, where it was cold.
“These two young men in a burial detail would pick me up and they said I would groan. They put me against a wall and it was that way for a week, until they said, ‘Let’s take this son-of-a-bitch to the hospital. There was an American hospital just two blocks down the road.”
Thomas said he was there for a week until he came to:
“It was as if I just floated out of the ground, out of this deep, deep, dark hole.”
A nurse, who Thomas recalls smelled of gardenia perfume, came right down near his face to ask what unit he was with and where his dog tags were. She also told him she wouldn’t let him see himself. Apparently, the blood had squished up through Thomas’ body and his face and hands had become one huge, dark bruise.
“I looked up and there was a chaplain standing at the end of my bed, and he was from my hometown. And I recognized him and said ‘Ed, what are you doing here?’”
“His knees buckled and he said, ‘We've been here thinking you were going to die!’ “
Thomas passed out again, awoke several days later, and then “got well”. He says he was taken to Paris where two-dozen doctors examined him. Amazed to find him alive given what he’d been through, they offered these reasons:
“You are young, you are in superb condition, it was terribly cold, and you must have one helluva strong desire to live.”
After he came back to the States, Thomas was sent to Palm Springs, California for surgical work on his leg and head. When he could get around again, he was transferred to occupational therapy. Walking into the therapy unit office, he noticed a
young woman sitting behind the desk.
As Thomas tells it, “Something said to me ‘That’s going to be your wife.”
Five days later, Ralph was engaged to her, and three months after that, in October of 1945, they were married. They’ve have now been married for 62 years.