WWII veteran Thompson to take Honor Flight
HE SERVED WITH PRIDE — Mitch Thompson, left, and his brother Mike, right, are very proud of their father Harold (seated), one of only 2,000 Minnesota WWII veterans remaining. This weekend, Harold Thompson will join approximately 170 veterans and their guardian volunteers for Honor Flight Twin Cities. (Star Eagle photo by Melanie Piltingsrud)
By MELANIE PILTINGSRUD
New Richland has the distinct honor of having Harold Thompson living in our community. One of only 2,000 Minnesota WWII veterans left, Thompson lied about his age when he was 17, claiming he was a year older, because he wanted to enlist in the army to be with his brothers, who were serving in New Guinea.
Thompson is a native to the area. He grew up in Hartland and went to high school in Freeborn until the school closed, and then graduated from New Richland-Hartland High School in 1943.
Now, back in New Richland, Thompson gets some well-deserved attention for the baseball cap he wears; it’s covered with medals for his service in the army. A purple heart attests to the time he was wounded by a hand grenade. A bronze star is a reminder of the time he risked his life to save another soldier. Many more imitation medals decorate the hat, while the originals are kept in a glass case.
After Thompson enlisted, he was brought first to New Guinea. “I was the youngest one, so I had to run between the squads,” said Thompson, “give them information, you know, from the third sergeant. That was dangerous.”
Thompson estimates that he was in New Guinea for about half a year, after which he spent a year in the Philippines, where the myriad of close calls he experienced earned him the nickname “Damn Lucky to Be Alive.” Thompson still has shrapnel in his neck and hand from the hand grenade that found its target while he and his fellow soldiers sheltered in a foxhole in the Philippines, eating Australian bully beef and other canned foods. “I was in the foxhole for 127 days,” said Thompson. Thompson tried to walk to safety with wounds in his chest, neck and arms, but blood loss caused him to pass out. “And then they put him on a stretcher,” said Mitch, Thompson’s son, “and then they walked right through the Jap line, and they didn’t shoot him. […] And then they got in an airplane, and when it was taking off, it crashed, so that’s why they called him Damn Lucky.”
“I come walkin’, and “Here comes Damn Lucky,” they’d say,” said Thompson.
Four of the Thompson brothers fought in the Philippines at the same time, so, when Thompson was wounded, his brother, George, visited him in the hospital. “In he walked!” said Thompson. “I was so surprised to see him!”
During the time they spent in the foxhole, one of the men, whom they had nicknamed “Frenchy,” left the foxhole temporarily to “go to the bathroom,” as Thompson put it. When the man returned, he sat down, and a Japanese soldier shot him right through the head.
“I shot a gun that shot 500 rounds a minute,” said Thompson, “a machine gun. It had bullets that long.” He holds up his hands to show a distance of about seven inches. “You could cut a man right in half with them. It was wicked. That’s why I can’t hear very good.” According to Thompson, it was a Browning Automatic Rifle.
“We fought in the jungle,” said Thompson, who was in the jungle in both New Guinea and the Philippines, “and at night we’d be just solid with mosquitos. One night, my buddy said, “There’s something up in the bush that’s up there!” You know, the Japs sneak of on you, and, so I took and emptied my machine gun right at that bush. Next morning there was a big, dead rat there. I got the rat!”
It was in the Philippines that Thompson earned the bronze star. “I saved a guy’s life,” Thompson said. “The Japs had pushed us off a hill, and he was falling backwards. He crawled right up to a tree, and he was so scared he didn’t dare to move.” The man got his legs caught in the tree. “And I was right beside him, and he said, “Help me! I can’t get loose!” So I just crawled up there, and I lifted his legs up, and I said, “Now go!” and that’s all. The Japs were shooting at me when I did that.
“We fought always in the jungle,” Thompson continued. “Mosquitos just solid every night on the arms. And then pretty soon the First Sergeant called me up on the phone. He said, “Pack your bag! You’re going home.” Thompson didn’t believe it was the first sergeant, so he hung up on him. “And pretty soon he called back. He said, “Don’t you ever hang up on me again! Your mother is sick, and you gotta go home!” And I went right home, and I never had to go back!” Thompson no longer recalls what ailment his mother had. “She got over it anyway,” he said.
“She raised nine kids, you know,” said Thompson of his mother. Thompson was the baby of the family. Of the five sons who went to fight in New Guinea, Jimmy, George, Vernon, Alvern, and Harold, the oldest and the youngest were wounded, but all of them made it home. “My mom, she just hated to answer the phone. She was afraid somebody had been hurt.”
“People see his hat when we go places,” said Mitch, “and they just shake his hand and say, “Thank you for your service.” They say it all the time – everybody.”
As for the other reminders of his service that Thompson permanently carries – the shrapnel in his throat, Thompson said, “It was so close to the main vein that they didn’t dare to operate on it.” Airlines are understanding. According to Mitch, “When he flies on a plane, the metal detector goes off every time. And they just let him through.”
“I got a lot of stories,” said Thompson. “I was marching into Korea, and there was a little boy standing there. And he looked like a Jap – the Koreans. And I said to him, “You Japanese?” “Me Japanese? No, you Japanese!” he said.” Thompson laughs at the story. “They didn’t like ‘em. He laughed so good!
“I even learned how to sing the Korean National Anthem!” Thompson demonstrated his astonishing ability. Mitch explained that Thompson sings it to some adopted Korean relatives of theirs.
Thompson said he had just gotten out of the service at age 23 when he got married, and moved to New Richland. He and Hellen Legrid had a daughter, Michelle, and then a pair of twins, Mike and Mitch.
Thompson and his brother, Vernon, started Thompson Auto Body in a Broadway Ave. gas station in 1946. Vernon had gone to school to learn at Dunwoody in Minneapolis, but Thompson learned on his own. They built their own shop in 1951, and then another at the current location of Thompson Auto Body in 1971, where Mitch and his brother have been working since 1993.
Thompson still likes to spend several hours a week at the Auto Body shop, where he crushes pop cans, so he can give the change he earns to his grandkids.
This April 7, Thompson and his son, Mitch, will join approximately 170 WWII, Vietnam and Korean veterans and their guardian volunteers for Honor Flight Twin Cities - a flight that will take them to Washington, D.C., so that the veterans can see their memorials. Many of the veterans will be visiting Washington, D.C. for the first time. Mitch said they will have to get up at 3 a.m. to get to the airport on time. By 9:20 a.m., they will arrive at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. There they will board a tour bus that will take them to the Air Force Memorial, and Women’s Memorial, where they will have a box lunch. After that, they will drive by the Capitol, the White House, and visit the Navy Memorial. At 1:30 p.m. there will be a flag and taps ceremony at the WWII Memorial, followed by a visit to the Lincoln and Vietnam Memorials. At Arlington Cemetery, there will be a Guard and Flag ceremony, and then at 6 p.m. they will drive to the Columbus Club in Arlington, VA. After a full day, the veterans will board a plane again at the Reagan Airport, and arrive back in the Twin Cities for a Welcome Home Reception and Farewell.
On Sunday, April 22, there will be a reunion at Grace Church in Roseville, MN, where the veterans can bring their family and friends to watch a video of their trip to Washington, D.C.
We wish Thompson and Mitch a pleasant journey to Washington, D.C. If anyone deserves the honor, it is certainly Harold Thompson.