- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2008

There are not many of us left who served in combat during World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

I was drafted in January 1945, at the end of World War II, took infantry basic training at then-Camp Hood in Texas and advanced infantry training at Fort Rucker in Alabama. I was promoted to temporary corporal, assigned an infantry squad, and we went by troop ship out of Washington state to the Philippines and were assigned to a base south of Manila.

Our mission was to protect the town of Batangas and our base from Japanese who were still in the area. When the Japanese left Batangas, they raided a Catholic girls school, raping several of the nuns and taking some of the girls with them into the hills. Despite our efforts to rescue the girls, we were never able to do so. There were stories in the town that Japanese would snatch babies from their mothers, throw them in the air and catch them on their bayonets.

The jungle trails were not easy to search, and we had some attempted raids against our base. I was told that we lost 17 men trying to get Japanese to surrender, some of them before I got there. I had just turned 19 when a bullet whizzed over my head on one of the trails.

Shortly after the nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan, the war ended, and I received orders to be in the occupation of Japan.

In the approximately two years I served in Japan, I learned the language. The Japanese treated us very well, and some told me they were happy the bombs had been dropped because that had ended the war and their husbands and sons could come home.

During the occupation of Japan, I was assigned to the office charged with reviving Japanese education. Mrs. Yamamoto, the wife of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto (who planned the Pearl Harbor attack) was very much involved. I have been to her house. It was half Japanese and half Western; both she and her husband had been in the United States before the war.

I was then assigned to the Ernie Pyle Theater, and we gave soldier shows in Japan and Korea. My interest was in theater, and I had had a scholarship to the University of Denver’s theater department when the draft got me. At the Ernie Pyle, we gave many shows in which I had leads, including “Arsenic and Old Lace” and “Yes My Darling Daughter.”

Returning to the University of Denver in 1947, I pursued my musical theater career and also joined the ROTC program, graduating in 1949 and receiving one of 10 Regular Army commissions given in Colorado that year. I was assigned as a platoon leader, infantry, to the Second Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, Wash.

* * *

When the Korean War broke out, our division was sent to Korea, and we landed in Pusan in August 1950. Almost immediately, we were in combat along various parts of the Pusan perimeter. The fighting was quite intense as North Korean units attempted to overrun us and drive us into the sea. We lost many men, including every man in one of the platoons of our company. I found five of the men with their hands tied behind their backs and shot in the back of the head.

There are many stories I could tell about individual heroism and the fighting. I was wounded while directing fire but insisted on not being evacuated and returned to my unit about the time the Inchon invasion took place. I received a battlefield promotion to first lieutenant.

When the Inchon invasion happened, the battles suddenly stopped. It was eerie to have the enemy just suddenly disappear as they fled north because their supply lines had been severed by that brilliant tactic - opposed by many in Washington - ordered by Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

We were immediately ordered to move north, and I know we passed leftover North Korean soldiers along the way, many of them in civilian clothes. They waved at us, but we were told to keep moving as long as they didn’t make contact.

They did plant some mines. The jeep in front of me hit one designed to disable a tank. The jeep flipped several feet in the air, and all four men in it were killed. Because the mines were in wooden cases, we could not readily detect them.

The move into North Korea was rapid, and only occasionally did we run into a firefight. On several occasions, the North Koreans used civilians as their shields. We tried not to hurt the screaming mob that ran toward our positions, instead getting them through our lines into safety before firing on the North Koreans behind them.

It worked, although one kid did drop a grenade close to me. We took cover, and it went off without harm. The South Korean police behind us told me later that the kid had been told that if he didn’t drop the grenade close to an American, his sisters would be killed.

We reached an area less than 20 miles from the Yalu River and dug in because there were attacks by unknown forces. The October weather was getting cold, and by late November, the winds out of Manchuria were freezing. Contact with enemy forces, now identified as Chinese, were becoming more frequent.

The 2nd Division began an offensive, but it bogged down because of the attacks and the cold weather. On Thanksgiving evening, we were all surprised to have hot turkey and all the trimmings served to us by the mess sergeants. That night, the bugles and flares of the Chinese began, and after very heavy fighting, the 2nd Division was ordered to retreat to better positions to our rear.

We ran a gantlet of about 10 miles to the critical Kuneri Pass, suffering many casualties. Marine P51 fighters helped us in our retreat. What we didn’t know was that the Chinese had been ordered to destroy our division, and we had about 100,000 Chinese in our area attempting to do so.

As we moved to, and through, the pass, many troops were killed, including my radio operator. I was shot twice in the right shoulder, shattering my arm socket. The ditch I rolled into was full of dead, but the survivors, including myself, were able to get to the southern end of the pass where British tanks had been stationed. The wounded were taken to a MASH unit that was about 10 miles behind the lines. We were treated and eventually evacuated to Japan.

I was told later that the battalion to which I was temporarily attached had about 750 men on Thanksgiving and just 69 got out. Some were captured, but most were killed. The 2nd Infantry Division was in the western part of Korea, and at the same time, the Marines and the 7th Army Division on the eastern side were having the same problems with at least 100,000 Chinese at the Chosin Reservoir and elsewhere. The weather was 20 below zero much of the time, and even our rifles froze up if we didn’t keep the oil warm.

* * *

After being evacuated to Japan and then Hawaii and the United States and being united with my new wife - we had been married just before I shipped off to Korea - I was assigned to teach at the infantry school at Fort Benning. I was then assigned to intelligence duties in the occupation of Germany, where our youngest son was born. He later went to the Naval Academy and became a carrier pilot, retiring as a reserve captain several years ago and working for United Airlines and Boeing.

It was back to the infantry school as a captain and then to the ROTC program at Southwest Missouri State University. The next assignment was to serve as the briefing officer in the new Defense Intelligence Agency in the Pentagon, where I kept the secretary of the Army and the Army chief of staff apprised of world events.

In 1962, it was my job to keep the members of the Cuban Missile Task Force in Washington apprised of the situation in Cuba and the movement of Soviet missiles into Cuba. I am, to my knowledge, the last surviving member of the Cuban Missile Task Force.

When the Vietnam War began, I was assigned to Gen. William Westmoreland’s staff in Saigon as the chief of current intelligence. We were the first to detect North Vietnamese forces moving down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into South Vietnam.

I returned to the Pentagon in 1965 with responsibility for keeping President Johnson up to date on the Vietnam situation.

When the Tet Offensive was over in 1968, I was part of the Pentagon team that went to Vietnam to study the results. The Viet Cong had been defeated decidedly, with many casualties by our “surge” when United States troops had earlier been introduced into Vietnam. Shortly after, the North Vietnamese army began to come down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into South Vietnam in great numbers, and we became involved with them very quickly.

I was assigned as the G-2, chief intelligence officer, to the 4th Infantry Division in the highlands, and we were responsible for stopping the annual takeover of villages and roads in the highlands of South Vietnam opposite the Cambodian border. The enemy had bases there that we were not allowed to destroy until President Nixon became our commander in chief. We also discovered and took the largest enemy arms cache ever found in Vietnam. It was a large hill just inside the Vietnam border with Cambodia.

I was then assigned as the commander of a mechanized infantry battalion in the highlands of Vietnam, and we were able to attack and destroy a larger North Vietnamese regiment that was attempting to invade the highlands as it had every fall for a number of years. The enemy regiment suffered heavy losses, including its very seasoned commander, and retreated into Cambodia, where it took several years to reconstitute. Our losses were four killed in combat and several hundred wounded, most not seriously.

After many assignments in the Washington area, including being the action officer for Vietnamization in the Pentagon, the commander of the 109th Military Intelligence Group at Fort Meade, Md., the chief of counterintelligence for the Army, the deputy chief of staff for intelligence at Forces Command in Atlanta and the commander of the Special Security Group of the Army in the Pentagon, I retired as a Regular Army colonel in June 1977. I also was a founder, president and executive director of the National Intelligence Association for a number of years.

* * *

Members of my family have served in every war in which Americans, or English Americans, have been involved since 1664, when my grandfather of the time, a captain, came with the Duke of York’s expedition to take New Amsterdam away from the Dutch. Several members of my family were in the French-Indian War; 44 members of the family were in the Revolution (one a friend of George Washington’s); two grandfathers were in the War of 1812; a cousin and others were in the Mexican War of 1846-48; 235 we can document were in the Civil War on both sides, including George Hainsworth, who fired the first cannon shot at Charleston, S.C., and another who was a friend of Abraham Lincoln’s; and others fought in the Indian Wars, the Spanish American War, World War I and so on.

For the record, my medals include the Silver Star, three Legions of Merit; four Bronze Stars (one with a V for valor); five Air Medals and many different commendation medals. I am most proud of having a star on my Combat Infantryman’s Badge (two awards). They didn’t give it for the Philippine action because it was so late in the war and we didn’t see enough action to deserve it.

I am a member of the Veterans Commission of Anne Arundel County and an adjunct professor of history at Anne Arundel Community College in Annapolis

CHARLES E. THOMANN
Annapolis

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