FORT SILL, Oklahoma (Nov. 15, 2021) -- Retired Lt. Col. James Thompson returned to his field artillery roots here during a ceremony honoring the 97-year-old veteran Nov. 8, at Vessey Hall.
Flanked by saluting trainees preparing to enter Basic Combat Training, Thompson returned that salute from his wheelchair, pushed by Drill Sergeant, (Sgt. 1st Class) Ricardo Lobo.
Continuing into Vessey Hall, Lobo then spoke to the trainees about Thompson’s service through three wars and 23 years on active duty.
“I’m a World War II buff, and a lot of these young Soldiers and (other young people) don’t appreciate our Greatest Generation,” said Lobo, a drill sergeant with A Battery, 95th Adjutant General Battalion (Reception). “Hopefully these trainees can see that it’s an honor to wear the uniform and serve your country.”
An affable Army professional, Lobo said he saw Thompson wearing a WWII, Korea, and Vietnam veteran ball hat. Lobo said veterans of those three wars are becoming scarce, and that he made a beeline to meet Thompson and hear his story.
“When I meet these guys I make it a point to talk to them, find out about them and their stories and keep in contact with them,” said Lobo.
Thompson, who will celebrate his 98th birthday Nov. 22, left his hometown of Wynne, Arkansas, at the age of 19 to enlist in the Army in 1943 as a 13B Cannon Crewmember.
“All the other men my age were enlisting, so it just seemed like the thing to do,” said Thompson.
Thompson earned his first Bronze Star for fighting in the vicinity of the Siegfried Line. After the war, he was discharged as a staff sergeant in 1946.
His time out of uniform was brief as he again enlisted in 1949. Thompson said that discussions with his first wife led him to making the Army a career to earn a paycheck and support his family. But then hostilities in Korea exploded, and Thompson returned to combat in the Korean War from June 1950 to November 1951. Ultimately, he rose to the rank of master sergeant during fighting that countered a massive North Korean offensive and pushed the enemy back near the border with China.
Perched on a high hill overlooking the Yalu River, Thompson said temperatures dropped to 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. “We suffered a tremendous number of cold weather injuries.”
Thompson’s unit was assaulted by enemy troops seeking to take the high ground. Facing a situation where direct fire was, at best, extremely difficult, Thompson calculated the correct trajectory of indirect artillery fire to rain steel and halt advancing Communist soldiers and keep the hill. For that intelligent effort, Thompson was awarded his second Bronze Star and a battlefield commission to second lieutenant.
“I like to think I never lost sight of my roots as a (noncommissioned officer). When I was awarded a battlefield commission, I just felt like I was still one of the smart ones,” he said.
Thompson next saw combat as a helicopter borne forward observer for field artillery in the Vietnam War from 1964 to 1965. He received his third Bronze Star and the Air Medal after the helicopter he was in was shot down.
Thompson said he built a one-room hut where he slept, rested, and wrote letters to his family. His daughter, Mary, recalled receiving those letters and how much they meant to her mother. She added her dad also sent cassette tapes. Upon hearing his voice, their dog’s perked up. “That dog hunted all over the house for him.”
Thompson retired from the Army in 1968.
Concluding his remarks, Lobo initiated a standing ovation for Thompson then invited all masked and inoculated individuals in attendance to line up to thank Thompson for his service and shake hands.
“I think everyone should take the time to reflect, not only on those we lost, but those who are still around who served and thank them for their service,” said Lobo.
Assessing who he is as a man today, and how the military helped shape him, Thompson spoke first of what his country means to him.
“I am very loyal to this United States. I’m a family man, and I love my family,” he said emphasizing the word love.
Thompson was married to his first wife, Mary, for 46 years. The couple had two daughters, Mary and Jimmie. He married again after his first wife’s death, and enjoyed 23 years with his second wife, Jean.
“I still remember both my wives, and I miss them,” he said. “I have wonderful memories of my times with them.”