Chickasaw WWII Navy vet enlisted young, survived South Pacific duty

This article appeared in the August 2017 edition of the Chickasaw Times

A native Oklahoman, Nathaniel Thomas’ childhood was about as country as country gets. He grew up in a time when people pushed furniture from room to room in their small houses to make space for square dances. It was time when neighbors knew each other for miles around and would rally together in times of trouble. Mr. Thomas says he had a “blessed” childhood. But his childhood came to an abrupt end when the U.S. entered World War II.

Growing up fast was a common theme in this young man’s life. His father died when he was an infant. Raised by his mother and maternal grandmother, he quickly assumed the mantle of “man of the house.” During his early years, he could most often be found hunting rabbit and squirrel for the family dinner, cutting wood for the hearth and wood burning cook stove, or attached to a horse drawn plow to turn over fields for planting.

“I had a good childhood,” Mr. Thomas said. “We weren’t rich, but we never went hungry. I did my hunting and fishing on top of the mountain near home and learned to swim in creeks and ponds. I was sitting in a movie theater when they announced we entered the war. I didn’t know what to think.”

It wasn’t long before he began to consider military service. He was too young to join up at the war’s onset, so he waited until he was 17. By then, he was already working hard and doing what he describes as “a man’s duty.”

“I was working on the railroad before I joined the Navy,” Mr. Thomas said. “I wasn’t a water boy, either. I was with the men pulling ties on the tracks. I remember seeing other boys dressed in the uniforms of the Navy, Army and Marines. I thought to myself ‘I wouldn’t mind being one of those guys myself.’ I talked my mother into signing my papers to let me go into the Navy before I was 18.”

He joined the U.S. Navy in 1944.

“It is hard to describe the atmosphere of America late in the war,” Mr. Thomas said. “Lots of things were rationed. There seemed to be a lot of distance between people. Neighbors had loved ones in the services (who had been killed). I lost some cousins in the Marines.”

He was sent to basic training in San Diego. It was an experience that stayed with him throughout his life. The Navy taught him new life skills, as well as modifying those he had already learned. He fondly remembers the health care and hygiene practices provided to recruits, as well as the clothing.

“I enjoyed some of the training, but some of it I didn’t,” Mr. Thomas said. “I didn’t like all the shots (vaccinations), haircuts or the dentistry. They pulled one of my teeth. I was fond of that tooth. The clothes the Navy issued us were sloppy, either too big or too small. I told them that I was a size 14. They gave me 14s, as well as 15s, and even 16s. I guess they thought I would keep growing.”

Upon completing basic training, he received leave for five days to visit family and friends. That homecoming was the only time he had second thoughts about joining the Navy. He felt “lonesome” knowing he would have to leave his family for an indefinite period of time.

Life in the Pacific

Mr. Thomas’s first duty station was in the South Pacific Ocean on Manus Islands, New Guinea. While on route to the island, he learned two valuable lessons.

“After training, I thought I was tough,” he said. “In actuality, I was a frail boy. My waist was 26 to 28 inches around. My sea bag was bigger than me. When I was shipping off, I fell at the top of a gang plank because the bag was so heavy. An officer came to my aid. I’ll never forget that. That was when I learned not all officers were mean and just barked orders.”

Manus Island was a relatively safe area. However, there were still pockets of Japanese hold-outs. Mr. Thomas had a close call with them.

“I had some tailor-made dungarees that I had put out on a clothes line to dry overnight. They were stolen. Gossip got around that some Japanese had tried to go through our chow lines disguised in our dungarees. I hated the thought of losing those dungarees, but I decided I was glad they got them instead of my life.”

As America’s island-hopping strategy progressed, he was transferred to a support ship anchored in Samar, Philippines. The ship provided maintenance and repairs to warships. Mr. Thomas had a harrowing experience while being transported to this duty station.

“The destroyer that ferried me to the Philippines began dropping depth charges,” he said. “This continued for two or three days. The sailors stationed to the destroyer wouldn’t tell us what was going on. We were considered troops. We didn’t know if a submarine was after us or not. We were all curious. I still wonder what they were dropping those depth charges on.”

After the war

Mr. Thomas was 18 years old when World War II ended in 1945. The Navy had taken the small-town Oklahoma boy more 8,300 miles from home. He describes the journey home as “exciting” and “long.” He traveled home from the Philippines by ship, train, bus and car to get home.

“Coming home to Oklahoma was like a dream,” Mr. Thomas said. “Momma picked me up from the bus station and took me home. I will never forget the first night home. Mockingbirds made nests near my bedroom window. I hated them. Their singing kept me up at night. When I laid down in my soft feather bed that first night… what do you think began to sing? I said, ‘bird, go ahead and sing all you want. I am home now. I am home.’”

He planned on returning to school, but he never really enjoyed school. Instead, he relied on his naval training and strong work ethic to guide his career decisions. He began working at the U.S. Naval Ammunitions Plant (Currently the U.S. Army Ammunition Plant) near McAlester, Okla.

During his time at the ammunition plant, Mr. Thomas heard God’s call to become a minister. He credits his mother for the direction his life took.

“When I was in the Navy I drank and smoked,” he said. “I lived the life of a sailor. My mother kept inviting me to revivals. I always found something else to do. One night I went and enjoyed it. I liked the singing. I liked what the preacher was preaching and he could sure play the guitar. Bam! I figured right then and there I would become a minister.”

Mr. Thomas married and had four children. Sam, his son, continued the military tradition by joining the U.S. Marine Corps. He served with distinction during the Vietnam War. He passed away in May, 2015.

“They gave him (Sam) a rough duty,” Thomas said. “He was a jungle fighter. Sam would go out into the jungle looking for the enemy. Sometimes the enemy would come to his hill and look for him. He had it pretty rough.”

Chickasaw Warrior Society and continued comradery

Now 91, Mr. Thomas lives in Blanchard, Okla. He proudly serves as a veterans’ chaplain. He is a staunch supporter of all veterans groups, but particularly cares for those dealing with Native Americans like the Chickasaw Warrior Society.

According to documents published by the Department Of Veterans Affairs, American Indian/Alaska natives are the least likely to use Veterans Administration services.

“The ability to talk to another (veteran) means a lot,” Mr. Thomas said. “Every veteran’s situation is different. One situation might be on the religious side of things, while another veteran may need help to find a job. You never know what you can do to help others out. Whose experiences can be called upon to help.”

Becoming a warrior is a shared heritage among all Native Americans, regardless of tribe. Culturally, becoming a warrior is a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. Becoming a warrior is often used to find meaning and purpose within an individual’s life.

“Being a warrior means a great deal to me,” Mr. Thomas said. “Like the Creeks, I went to Stomp Dances growing up. Chickasaws have their ways of preparing for things. Chickasaw warriors put their trust in the almighty God. All Indian warriors do.”

Mr. Thomas has attended the Chickasaw Annual Elder Veterans Trip to Washington, D.C., twice. During his second visit, the fellowship among Native American warriors was highlighted with a tribute to Mr. Thomas and his son, Sam. The tribute will never be forgotten by the family.

“I was standing on the sidelines of a parade in Washington, D.C., when an Indian Marine walked up to me from his band,” Mr. Thomas said. “He had his bugle in his hand. He didn’t say anything. He just shook my hand, put his bugle to his mouth and began to play the Marines’ Hymn. I didn’t know what was going on. My daughter reminded me it was exactly one year ago we had my son’s funeral. The exact day and to the hour. It was good to know someone remembered me. That they remember my boy.”