Did you know that Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day? In the old days, it was the day when people decorated the graves of those who died in service for our country. Those graves were decorated with flowers, wreaths, and flags. Today we call it Memorial Day to remember those who lost their lives fighting for our freedom.
There is a grave in my hometown. All of us kids raised there heard “his” story. He grew up there just like we did. He went to the same school. He played football and ran track and played ball on the high school mound. He lettered in numerous sports.
His classmates, though, said that he was a class star. My Uncle told me the other day that he could out debate the teachers. He said, “We thought he was smarter than the teachers.” He went on to be the Monticello High School Class of 1941 President and Captain of the football team.
He was a natural leader. He wouldn’t prove it, though, until on a remote Pacific Island seven hundred miles off the coast of Japan.
Today, only a few people who personally knew our hometown hero are still living. If he were still alive, he would be 92; but when he was young and running the streets of Monticello, he had blond curly hair and blue eyes. His name was Ernest Ivy Thomas, Jr. His friends called him “Boots”.
By the time Pearl Harbor happened, he had graduated from high school and was studying aeronautical engineering at a small Midwestern college. My Uncle James Roe was also away at Jones Business College in Jacksonville, but he was close enough to come back home for weekend visits. Home was Monticello, Florida, 26 miles northeast of Tallahassee. Below is a picture of Boots in college.
In December my Uncle was home visiting his family. Uncle James said that he went downtown that Sunday before returning to school and stopped at a service station on the southwest corner of Waukeenah and Washington Streets. There was a group of men listening to a radio, and they told him that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. None of them knew where that was. In that moment, Monticello, if not America, was never the same again.
As America’s war machine built, Boots tried to continue with his studies, until he could stand it no longer. He already asked his Mother to sign so he could go, but she refused. He was still only 17.
That summer in 1942, just before his 18th birthday, he talked to his Mother again. His Father passed away when he was fifteen. Boots told his Mother, “I’ve got to go…I’ve got to fight.”
Like so many other young people all across our nation, Boots followed his heart and walked away from his hopes and dreams for his future, his family, his friends. He was listening to a higher calling, a gut pull to give of himself to protect all that we were.
He joined the Marines and boarded a train in Orlando headed for Parris Island, SC. He promoted quickly and became a drill instructor. Later, the Marines asked him to become a drill instructors’ instructor. He was that good at leading men, and the military was short of men that could do the job.
Boots kept asking his superiors, though, to be sent into combat duty; and he finally got his wish.
By the time Boots was 20 years old, his leadership skills were put to a final test on a desolate Pacific island called Iwo Jima, a Japanese-held fortress teaming with over 20,000 dug-in enemy combatants. The enemy was below ground in mazes of bunkers and tunnels, some as deep as seven stories below. As a platoon sergeant Boots came ashore with the Fifth Amphibious Division.
The island was vital to the war for both Japan and America. Our bombers could not get to Japan without the radar on Iwo Jima picking up their positions. On the island were two runways for Japanese Zeros and other planes. On February 19, 1945, the Marines came ashore.
When his lieutenant was wounded, Boots assumed command of his platoon. Their mission was to move forward against the interconnecting defense positions surrounding the base of Mt. Suribachi. In that second day of heavy fighting, the day ended with the 3rd platoon receiving two Navy Crosses, a Silver Star, seven Bronze Stars, and 17 Purple Hearts.
One of the Navy Crosses went to Boots. Thomas realized that the tanks needed help in maneuvering the unevenness and brokenness of the terrain and finding the pillboxes. Throughout the battle, Thomas left his men always in a protected position and raced back and forth between the tanks and his men, standing in front of the tank and pointing out the enemy pillboxes that hindered his platoon’s advances.
He was constantly exposed to enemy fire, so much so that they shot his rifle out of his hand which he has been using to point to the pillboxes. He simply pulled out his knife and used it instead. He survived the day to fight again.
His and his men’s actions and advances on those bloody slopes had been so great that they had by-passed the Japaneseforces and spent the night cut off from their Battalion. It was a battle, though, that would continue for five more weeks.
Unfortunately, Iwo Jima was far from over. The prize, they thought, was Mt. Suribachi, the highest point on the island; and it would take three bloody days to take it. Boots and his platoon were chosen to plant the American flag on its peak. He and his men succeeded.
That flag-raising was immortalized later in the great Rosenthal Pulitzer Prize-winning photo which was snapped when they took down the smaller flag that Boots and his platoon had planted and raised a second larger flag.
The first flag raised there on top of that volcanic crater stirred the hearts of the thousands of Marines who were down below still fighting. The men below cheered, and the ships and carriers blew their horns. It gave them hope. It gave them resolve to finish the job, which was important because there was still much work to be done.
Boots Thomas quickly found himself in the limelight. He became famous overnight. His photo instantly appeared in newspapers across the nation. He told the reporters, “The honor belongs to every man in my platoon.”
He quickly broke away and returned to his men; and three days later while still trying to finish the job on Iwo Jima, a sniper took Boots’s life as he led his men against another enemy stronghold. He was certainly not alone, though, as over 6,800 other Americans were killed on the island before it was over.
I found an old newsreel about Iwo Jima. You can see it here.
His body was not returned to Monticello until the spring of 1948, three years after the war ended. He was laid to rest in the city cemetery. There is a plaque over his grave placed there by the US Marine Corp. At the western edge of Monticello on US 90 is also a monument raised in his honor.
Two years before he was brought home, the high school football stadium was named Memorial Stadium to commemorate the 18 local boys killed in WWII, most of which had played football on that field and one of which had been Boots Thomas. Little Monticello and Jefferson County (populations approximately 2,000 and 13,000 respectively) sent over 550 men and women into WWII.
One of Boots’s childhood friends Dr. Jim Sledge, who most of his life kept the memory of Boots alive in so many ways, led an effort to write a book about the life of Boots Thomas–from his childhood in Monticello to boot camp to combat and his return home.
I just got my 95-year old Uncle James a copy of the book, and last week I called him to see how far he had read. He said, “I already finished it. I couldn’t put it down. I didn’t turn on the TV for almost two whole days.”
The book is entitled “Call Me No Hero: Two Ordinary Boys and a Tale of Honor and Valor” by R. A. Sheats. It is well researched and well written. You can find a hard copy here. Or you can get a Kindle edition in the link at the end of this post. Several of the photos in this post come from the book.
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I plan to sit down and watch “The Sands of Iwo Jima” again this weekend. If I remember correctly, it mentions Boots Thomas in the opening or closing credits. It is a very good movie. It is about a platoon Sargent, who leads his men to do the impossible and then takes a fatal bullet from a sniper. If any of the grandbabies are around to watch the movie with me, I’ll tell them about Boots Thomas and what he did for his country.
Today as we gather around our TVs, let’s remember the generation that gathered around their radios when there was no tv, no Facebook, no internet. Let’s remember the men and women who never got back home. Let’s tell their stories because they were silenced and cannot tell their stories themselves.
For the men and women who died during WWII, almost all of their friends and family have too since passed. Both my Uncle and Dr. Sledge are in their 90s.
I cannot think of a better way to honor the memory of those who gave their all than to tell their stories to the next generation. That is what we Americans should do on Memorial Day.