JOHN W. THOMASON
WWI MARINE, WRITER, ARTIST, AND NAVY CROSS WINNER
By Donald R. Morris (Thomason USMC, American Heritage, November 1993, Volume 44, Issue 7)
A Texas Marine who drew beautifully and wrote as well as he drew became the laureate of the me who checked the last great German offensive. All but forgotten today, his 1926 bestseller remains perhaps the finest account of Americans in the Great War.
"The book is here now: a straight-forward prose account of four battles, with infinite detail of the men and emotions in these battles, reinforced with sketches and impressions drawn upon the field. It is, in the opinion of many of us who ought to know, the finest account of their sons in battle which the American people have received. …” The writer who felt he was qualified to judge a war book was Laurence Stallings, who had been wounded in action in Belleau Wood and whose wildly popular play What Price Glory? was in its second year on Broadway when he composed this tribute to the work of a fellow Marine. “Fix Bayonets! is in the company of Tolstoy and Crane and Bierce in the literature of war. Indeed, I should leave Crane out of it. … The Red Badge of Courage cannot stand the fierce sun of Fix Bayonets!”
Its author, Col. John W. Thomason, Jr., U.S.M.C., is all but forgotten now, but from 1925 through the Second World War he produced a stream of stunning stories, novels, and nonfiction, all enlivened with his inimitable sketches, that lasted twenty years. Hardly a month passed without a book of his in print or a story in some magazine; millions read him avidly. And today, nearly seventy years after its publication, his first book, Fix Bayonets!, remains the single finest account of Americans in battle in World War I.
He was born on the twenty-eighth of February, 1893, in Huntsville, Texas—the first of Dr. John W. Thomason’s nine children. His mother was Sue Hayes Goree, the daughter of Maj. Tom Goree, late of General Longstreet’s staff: an uncle and four great-uncles had also been Confederate officers.
The Thomason family was remarkably close-knit, with a substantial house two blocks from the courthouse, on a lot large enough for barns and stables. Grandfather Goree, who was closer to John than his father was, taught him to ride, hunt, and fish.
Dr. Thomason, an eye, ear, nose, and throat specialist (and a deacon of the Methodist church and a militant dry), maintained a large library. It wasn’t for show. The parents read aloud to the assembled family in the evenings, and John needed little urging to work his own way through the shelves, going far beyond the obligatory reading program his father imposed. He was raised on Shakespeare, Scott, Dickens, Kipling, Thackeray, Mark Twain, Hugo, Balzac, and Dumas, and early on—as Winston Churchill put it after a similar course of literary self-education—he “got the bones of the English sentence” firmly planted in his mind.
There was also a Doré Bible, with several chapters (and memorization) set daily, which had more of a literary than a theological effect on young John. All of his life his writing, while hardly on theological subjects, bore the stamp of the grammatical usages, the vocabulary, and the stately rhythms of the King James Scriptures.
His mother was a busy hostess; a score of friends and relatives ringed her Sunday table, and the talk among the elders sooner or later turned to the war. John learned his Civil War history from the primary oral sources, who had fought in it. A favorite guest was a fiery nonagenarian Methodist preacher (unrelated, but by courtesy “Uncle John”) who had started as a circuit rider and followed John Hood’s Texas Brigade to Virginia, happily combining fighting and preaching. It was just as well John’s education was polished at home; he was an indifferent scholar. He excelled in history and English and tended to let other subjects slide. His father had hopes he would follow him into medicine, as two of his four sons did, but John’s interests lay elsewhere. It was hard to say exactly where. While still a child, he developed a passion for sketching, at which he was remarkably talented. He started with birds and horses and went on to people. The sketching was obsessive; he drew wherever he was, with pen, pencil, or charcoal, on whatever came to hand. He had an uncanny gift for line; his figures were vibrant and sprang off the page. He was less sure of perspective, composition, and backgrounds; large, complicated scenes never came out quite right, and the rough shading techniques that served so well on individuals didn’t always work out on landscapes or backgrounds. He tried three colleges, was certified and taught in rural schools, and fell in love with the girl next door, Leda Bass, whose father ran the state penitentiary. Only this last gave him much pleasure: Leda was beautiful, a superb horsewoman, almost as well read as John—the epitome, he thought, of Southern graces.
He took his mother into his confidence. Teaching was a dead end; he wanted to be an artist. With her support, his reluctant father finally agreed to a year at the Art Students League in New York City. John arrived in Manhattan in May of 1914, on a tight allowance—and at first sight detested the city. It was enormous, dirty, and noisy; he was living in a four-dollar-a-week room, lunching on milk and a sandwich, and commuting by subway to the Art Students League.
But New York started to grow on him. The teeming streets and the waterfronts offered endless subjects for his pencil, the architecture impressed him, and, as the war in Europe got under way, he, too, was gripped by the popular excitement. He visited warships moored in the Hudson; their grim, gray aura of power fascinated him.
A year later he was back in Huntsville. He was now twenty-two, a competent illustrator—not a productive profession (especially in Huntsville), with the need to support himself. In July of 1916 he went to work as a cub reporter on the Houston Chronicle and began to cover a variety of stories—political campaigns, interviews with assorted notabilities—and an anti-vice campaign. He wrote well; extremely well—and the work added a polish to his mixed education in what the French call l’école des quatre vents-—the school of the four winds. Just possibly, his future lay in journalism. On the strength of his salary, he proposed to Leda and was accepted.
It wasn’t to be. In April the Chronicle carried a call from the United States Marine Corps for 150 young men to be commissioned as second lieutenants. John picked up his last paycheck, walked across the street to the Rice Hotel, and enlisted—on the day the United States declared war on Germany. He applied for one of the Marine reserve commissions (on the strength of his expectations, the Marine Corps made him a gunnery sergeant), and he was sent to New Orleans to drill the young volunteers flooding into the corps. The commission came through promptly, and John was posted to Charleston, South Carolina, for further training.
In June, somewhat to his surprise, his reserve commission was replaced by a regular Marine Corps commission. This was a godsend; it carried far more prestige than his Naval Volunteer Reserve commission and held out the promise of a Marine career after the war. Leda was on a trip to New York and passed through Washington, visiting relatives, on the way back. Thomason caught a train to Washington, married her, and bore her back in triumph to Charleston; there wasn’t time for a honeymoon.
In October Thomason was promoted first lieutenant and ordered to Quantico, Virginia, for the grueling ninety-day training course for newly commissioned officers. Among his classmates was Laurence Tucker Stallings, an Atlanta man who shared similar literary tastes, with an equally checkered educational career. Stallings had been expelled from Trinity (later Duke University) after being caught drinking and smoking during a poker game. Dr. William Louis Poteat accepted him at Wake Forest, a Baptist institution (although “Doctor Billy” was surprisingly liberal). Within months Stallings was again caught in a poker game, equipped with a cigar and a bottle of moonshine.
"Young man,” Dr. Poteat asked the culprit in his office the following morning, “can you give me one good reason why I shouldn’t expel you?”
Stallings thought fast. “Yes, sir. I’m engaged to your daughter.” On reflection Dr. Poteat decided that did indeed constitute a good reason; Stallings was retained—on probation. He then scurried off to find Helen Poteat, whom he hadn’t yet actually met, before her father sent for her, and threw himself on her mercy. She thought it hilarious and agreed to play along to save Laurence’s academic career. The war came, and Stallings followed the same route Thomason had—-and married Helen when he returned from overseas.
In May of 1918 1st Lt. John W. Thomason, Jr., U.S.M.C., arrived in France, in the 4th Marine Brigade of the 5th Marines, part of the 2d Division, American Expeditionary Forces. He took stock of his raw new platoon. As he later wrote, “there were also a number of diverse people who ran curiously to type, with drilled shoulders and a bone-deep sunburn, and a tolerant scorn of nearly everything on earth. Their speech was flavored with navy words, and … in easy hours their talk ran from the Tartar Wall beyond Pekin to the Southern Islands, down under Manila. … Rifles were high and holy things to them, and they knew five-inch broadside guns. They talked patronizingly of the war, and were concerned about rations. They were the Leathernecks, the Old Timers … the old breed of American regular, regarding the service as home and war as an occupation; and they transmitted their temper and character and view-point to the high-hearted volunteer mass which filled the ranks of the Marine Brigade.”
The Germans had already launched their last, gigantic effort to break through the Western Front, the Kaiser schlact, and the 2d Division was hurried to Château Thierry to plug a hole in the crumbling French line.
On June 1 the unblooded Americans found themselves facing Belleau Wood, strongly held by crack German troops, entrenched beyond a field of ripening wheat. To the Germans’ astonishment the Marines attacked through the wheat field; seasoned troops would never have tried that, in the face of barbed wire and concealed machine-gun nests and without a supporting artillery barrage. The Germans were even more astonished when the Marines got through the wheat and plunged into the tangled woods. The machine-gun nests had to be taken out one by one, and the Marines fought for five days, most of it hand-to-hand combat.
"The American fighting man has his failings. He is prone to many regrettable errors. But the sagacious enemy will never let him get close enough to see whom he is attacking. When he has seen the enemy, the American regular will come on in. To stop him you must kill him. And when he is properly trained and has somebody to say ‘Come on!’ to him, he will stand as much killing as anybody on earth.” Thomason was learning his trade.
Stallings, already wounded but still in the fight, took a machine-gun burst in his right knee, destroying the joint, while attacking German rifle pits on the edge of the wood, and was carried out. He would spend months in a hospital in France (which resulted in the exquisite novella Vale of Tears) before returning to the States. Doctors grafted his femur directly to his shinbone, but the joint was weak and kept cracking, and pockets of infection remained. (Stallings didn’t help by trying to play polo.) In 1920 he had the leg taken off and replaced by an Idaho willow leg with a knee joint, with which, on a special saddle with a hook to anchor his stump, he could play polo. In 1924 he published Plumes, the first novel to deal with the problems of the returning disabled veteran.
On June 6 the Marines took Hill 204, the key to the position, and by the end of the month the Germans had been thrown back. The French renamed what was left of the wood Bois de la Brigade de Marine and awarded the entire brigade the Croix de Guerre, with palm; the unit is entitled to wear the fourragère to this day.
Thomason had found himself in combat; the years of aimless drifting were over. He was to be a professional soldier—a Marine. Those who had performed well in bitter fighting usually glossed over it in letters home; those on the fringes of combat usually exaggerated the danger and their deeds. Thomason did neither; his detailed letters to Leda and his parents were objective accounts of what he had seen and done. He sorrowed over the wanton waste but took enormous pride in what he and his men had accomplished.
"A man is born, gets married, and dies,” he wrote to his mother. “These are the three greatest events in life. If he can add going to war to those three, he can add the great adventure, for that’s what war is.
"War is certainly the great adventure. It is horrible beyond all words and so hideously and hatefully wasteful and wanton—and yet—you never know what getting down to realities means until you go to war. All a man’s pretenses and vanities and such things, as we all wear to mask the inside of us, are quite stripped away. … Life becomes unbelievably simple and direct. You stand it or you break under it. … There isn’t any middle ground.”
Even in the thick of battle, Thomason, who had managed to stuff a few sketch pads into his pack, continued to draw. There wasn’t time for finished drawings. The rough sketches showed men dead, men alive, men fighting; rifles and machine guns and village streets were jammed on the pages. (And he appropriated with delight a complete set of paints he found in a German officer’s dugout.) Sgt. Alexander Woollcott, a roving reporter for the Stars and Stripes, passed on stories of a Marine officer who sketched the war while under shellfire.
There were a few days of rest; Thomason was promoted to captain. Then his outfit was thrown into the fight at Soissons, alongside a French Moroccan division. Backed by his gunnery sergeant, Thomason took out a German nest, killing thirteen and capturing two Maxim guns. The Army awarded him a Silver Star; thanks to the tangled chain of command, the same citation slowly worked its way into Navy channels and, twenty years later, resulted in a Navy Cross.
Thomason described that fight in the third person: “Here and there a well-fought Maxim gun held its front until somebody—officer, non-com, or private—got a few men together and, crawling to left or right, gained a flank and silenced it. And some guns were silenced by blind, furious rushes that left a trail of writhing khaki figures, but always carried two or three frenzied Marines with bayonets into the emplacement; from whence would come shooting and screaming and other clotted unpleasant sounds, and then silence.
"From such a place, with four men, the lieutenant climbed, and stood leaning on his rifle, while he wiped the sweat from his eyes with a shaking hand. Panting, white or red after their nature—for fighting takes men differently, as whiskey does—the four grouped around him. One of them squatted and was very sick. And one of them, quite young and freckled, explored a near-by hole and prodded half a dozen Boches out of it, who were most anxious to make friends. The other three took interest in this, and the Boches saw death in their eyes. They howled like animals, these big hairy men of Saxony, and capered in a very ecstasy of terror. The freckled Marine set his feet deliberately, judging his distance, and poised his bayonet. The lieutenant grasped his arm—’No! No! take ‘em back—they’ve quit. Take ‘em to the rear, I tell you.’ The freckled one obeyed, very surly, and went off through the tangle to the rear.
"Afterward, sweating and panting, the freckled one who had started back with prisoners caught up with the lieutenant. ‘Lootenant, sir!’ he gasped, wiping certain stains from his bayonet with his sleeve. ‘Them damn Heinies tried to run on me, an’ I jest natcherly had to shoot ‘em up a few—’ and he looked guilelessly into the officer’s eyes. ‘Why you—Hell! … fall in behind me, then, an’ come along. Need another orderly.’”
The battles followed, stepping on each other’s heels; Mont Blanc, St.-Mihiel, the Meuse-Argonne. Thomason was in the thick of them all. “That night, lying in its shallow, hastily dug holes, the remnant of the battalion descended through further hells of shelling. The next night tins of beef and bread came up. There was some grim laughter when it came. ‘Captain,’ reported the one remaining sergeant, after distributing rations in the dark, ‘they sent us chow according to the last strength report—three days ago—230-odd rations. The men are building breastworks out of the corned-willy cans, sir! —twenty of ‘em’— ...
"More days and nights, slipping, characterless, into each other. Being less than a company in strength, the 1st Battalion of the 5th was not called on to attack again. They lay in their holes and endured. ‘Until the division has accomplished its mission,’ said the second-in-command, rubbing his dirt-encrusted and unshaven chin. ‘That means, until the rest of the outfit is killed down as close as we are. Then we’ll be relieved, an’ get a week’s rest and a gang of bloodthirsty replacements, an’ then we can do it all over again. …’
"And after certain days the division was relieved. The battalion marched out at night. The drumming thunder of the guns fell behind them and no man turned his face to look again on the baleful lights of the front. On the road they passed a regiment of the relieving division—full, strong companies of National Guardsmen. They went up one side of the road; and in ragged column of twos, unsightly even in the dim and fitful light, the Marines plodded down the other side. They were utterly weary, with shuffling feet and hanging heads. The division had just done something that those old masters in the art of war, the French, and the world after them, including Ludendorff, were to acknowledge remarkable. They had hurled the Boche from Blanc Mont and freed the sacred city of Rheims. They had paid a price hideous even for this war. And they were spent. If there was any idea in those hanging heads it was food and rest.”
Thomason fought almost continuously until four days before the armistice, when, still unwounded, with a fever of 104 degrees, he was packed off for a short hospital spell. It may have been a touch of the Spanish flu, complicated by overwork and exhaustion; it may have been something else. It was a pattern that would reoccur.
With the armistice he hoped to be home by Christmas, but he drew occupation duty in Coblenz. On Friday, December 13, 1918, he marched his company across the Rhine into Germany.
"Toward noon the clouds lifted, and the rain slowed to a thin drizzle, although it did not stop. The battalion filed between hills toward a great valley, dimly seen. The hills towered over them, dark, menacing—‘No wonder the ole Boche has such a mean disposition, livin’ in a country like this—’ The battalion came into a town with paved streets and trolley-cars and tall factory chimneys that did not smoke. Platoon commanders said it was Remagen; those towers to the right would be the bridge. There was a bridge, a great steel structure of high black arches. The battalion filed upon it..."
Some twenty-six years later American troops would again have to cross that bridge—this time under fire. That would not have surprised Thomason. He has one of his Marines, marching past silent knots of German children gathered on Remagen street corners, exclaim, “Say—you see all those kids—all those little square-heads! Hundreds of ‘em, I’ll swear. Something’s got to be done about these people. I tell you, these Boche are dangerous! They have too many children—”
Thomason came home in August 1919. He was a captain of Marines with a regular commission—a seasoned veteran and a hero. An honorable career now stretched ahead of him. “I like the job,” he wrote to his mother, “like to handle men, and I like the profession of arms, which is, after all, the most ancient and honorable profession. It stands to a degree between all the other professions as a shield … and we have seen how God can make it His own weapon.” But the world was sick of war; the military was on the back burner, and lean, dull years stretched ahead.
There was, in fact, dissidence in Cuba, and Thomason was almost immediately posted to Camagüey with a mounted infantry company, to reassure (more than protect) American sugar interests in the area. The duties were not onerous, and the Thomasons settled into a comfortable hotel, where in 1920 their only child, John W. Thomason III (always “Jack” to distinguish him from his father), was born. There was time for reading, sketching, and writing. Thomason tried his hand at a few articles and short stories, drawing on his wartime experience and sending them to magazines in New York, but despite several impressed editors, “our readers are not interested in the late conflict.”
In 1921 Thomason was transferred to Hampton Roads; in 1923 to command of the sixty-five-man Marine guard at the Naval Ammunition Depot near Dover, New Jersey. It was (deliberately) located deep in the countryside and extremely isolated. The quarters were good, as were the hunting and fishing, and the duties were not demanding. The Thomasons were easily able to visit friends in New York and take in a monthly show. He was also able to arrange exhibitions of his combat sketches at a couple of galleries; they were much admired but found no buyers.
Laurence Stallings, however, marked the press releases and insisted Thomason bring him his portfolio. After the success of Plumes Stallings had become literary editor of the famed op-ed page of the New York World, reviewing several books a week. He had also tried his hand at a play (typing the entire second act on the kitchen table while Helen was preparing dinner). Maxwell Anderson, with one successful drama already under his belt, joined him, mainly to adapt the script for effective staging, and opened on Broadway in 1924.
It was an instant smash hit, introducing the prototypical Old Corps Marines Sergeant Quirt and Captain Flagg to the world and introducing Broadway, for the first time, to hells and damns on the stage, not to mention raucous antics involving a French barmaid. (The character of Lieutenant Cunningham was based on Thomason.) The Navy Department viewed it askance; an admiral tried to shut down the show on the grounds that commissioned officers of the naval service should not be portrayed in public using profane speech or chasing women. (Heywood Broun, in a column next to Stallings’s book reviews, respectfully asked what action the admiral intended to take about Madame Butterfly.) Stallings was by now a charter member of the Algonquin Round Table and a man of weight in literary circles. (Not all were charmed. Dorothy Parker: “I wouldn’t care for Laurence Stallings if he’d lost both legs.”)
Stallings went to Hollywood to work on What Price Glory?, and when his friend the director King Vidor mentioned his ambition to make a movie about war, Stallings blithely said he had a cracking good war story. But Vidor couldn’t get a script out of him. When the time came to return to New York, Vidor made the travel arrangements; Stallings found himself in a Pullmanette with a case of whiskey and a young unknown, Billy Rose—who just happened to be America’s shorthand champion. Stallings laughed, stripped to his BVDs, swung into the upper berth, hung his willow leg on a hook at the foot of the bed, opened a bottle, and started to dictate. Rose never forgot that stifling compartment; he sat cross-legged on the lower bunk as the train rattled along the grades, scribbling page after page of the story of a young man who lost his leg in the war—with Stallings’s wooden leg banging against the berths on the curves. The story was finished on arrival in New York, where a typewriter was delivered; Rose stayed aboard to transcribe his shorthand and carry the script back to Vidor.
Stallings’s status shot even higher in 1925, when The Big Parade premiered. The battle scenes were awesome, the humorous touches deft, the production stunning. It coined more money than What Price Glory? (and more than the play’s film version—there were eventually to be three—which shortly followed).
Thomason, although he didn’t know it, had walked into Stallings’s office at exactly the right moment. As always, war fever burned itself out after the armistice, and the cheering had stopped in 1919, when Johnny came marching home. The veterans were eager to resume interrupted lives, and they, and the public, were fed up with the hyperpatriotism, false heroics, and crude, silly propaganda of the war years. The true nature of the slaughter and carnage was only now sinking in, another war was unthinkable, and the last thing anyone wanted to read about, or see in a movie, was war. (In 1933, Stallings would arouse a storm of criticism for titling a magnificent photographic collection—for which Helen had written the haunting captions— The First World War.) For a long time after the armistice, almost nothing appeared except the stuffy, self-serving memoirs of high commanders and political leaders, suddenly at loose ends and eager to eke out their retirement pay.
But as Franklin P. Adams had sagely noted in 1918, “When this is over, there are only going to be two kinds of men in America—those who were in it, and those who weren’t. Ask anyone. Ask the man next door. Ask your girl friend.” A goodly number of those who had been in it were turning to literary careers; they were now the Old Breed, with a not-so-tolerant scorn of writers and editors who hadn’t been in it. In the mid-1920s, after digesting their combat time, they themselves began to write about it, in a realistic fashion that had never been seen before (except in The Red Badge of Courage, and Stephen Crane hadn’t been in the war he wrote about, or any other). In Britain and Germany, France and America, there began to appear books and plays that brought home exactly what the fighting had been like. Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and The Road Back, R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End, Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire—all came as sobering shocks to readers who had been largely ignorant of the actualities of trench warfare. In America Stallings, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Boyd, Leonard Nason, and many others—and now Thomason—were to benefit from that development.
The men who produced this material were indeed a breed apart, with a moral authority those who hadn’t been in it couldn’t muster. The veterans tended to review each other’s works—almost invariably favorably—and no one who hadn’t been in it dared write about combat or criticize the material of those who had. Novels and plays and movies about the First World War written by those who hadn’t participated didn’t start to appear until the generation that did the fighting finally began to fade from the scene. Until well after the Second World War, they had a copyright on the first one.
Stallings took Thomason’s portfolio to the prestigious Scribner’s Magazine. The editors were impressed and wanted to publish the drawings. They paid a nice price for them but needed some sort of text to go with them.
Stallings asked his friend if he could work up some copy to accompany the sketches; Thomason brought him the material he’d been unable to market a few years earlier. It wasn’t a cohesive book; it was a series of anecdotal accounts of the battles he’d found himself in and a few shorter pieces about time in billets behind the front.
Scribner’s was dumbfounded; their unknown artist could write even better than he could draw. Thomason was turned over to Maxwell Perkins, Scribner’s editorial genius; the pieces could run as articles by themselves, and Perkins began to think in terms of an eventual book. Scribner’s Magazine ran four of Thomason’s “chapters” several months apart, with some of his illustrations. The articles caused a tremendous stir; men who had been in action were deeply moved by what they regarded as the best description of what combat was really like they’d ever read. The author found himself famous, almost overnight. John W. Thomason had arrived.
Unfortunately he had also departed. He was at sea even before his first article appeared in Scribner’s. (He left the Ammunition Depot just in time; a month after his departure lightning struck, and his successor and thirty-seven Marines died in a volcanic explosion.) Despite urgings to resign his commission and devote himself to writing and illustrating, Thomason regarded himself—to the end of his days—as a Marine, first, last, and always. He had accepted assignment as commander of the 103-man Marine guard aboard USS Rochester, an armored cruiser and flagship of the Special Service Squadron based at Balboa in the Panama Canal Zone. (The Rochester had started life as USS New York, distinguishing herself at the Battle of Santiago in 1898.)
An avalanche of enthusiastic mail descended on the Rochester. There were requests for more material; bids to illustrate books and articles. William Randolph Hearst tried unsuccessfully to buy Thomason’s exclusive services for Cosmopolitan.
Thomason was enormously busy; there seemed to be a bottomless market for whatever he could turn out, and he found material for articles and short stories all around him: the adventures of the enlisted Marines, the ritual of “crossing the line,” the ship’s mascot, and even the impact of mail on a distant ship’s company. He was also polishing the text for Scribner’s book. Fix Bayonets! came out in March of 1926; the reviews were unanimously laudatory.
"It is a book that is part of the American heritage,” wrote Stallings in McCall’s. “It becomes this heritage not only for its prose. Its drawings contain, above all others done by Americans in war, the philosophy of conflict. Thomason draws his war at the point of the individual resolve to kill or be killed, and every line of the bodies that he depicts is agonized with this resolve. The pictures are inextricably woven into the text in a wonderful stroke of two talents of the artist found within the gift of one man, and that man a soldier first of all. A professional soldier, enamored of his calling of death, and yet more frank in his delineation of the faults of his mistress than a thousand enemies of her, but unwavering in his devotion to the men that serve her dark missions of waste and destruction.” The book was a runaway bestseller, going through three printings of fifteen thousand in ninety days.
Finances were no longer a problem—as they were for most officers in those years. Assigned to Fort Humphreys, Thomason bought a house in Washington, and a Buick, and was able to put some money aside. His social life was growing apace, including dinner at the White House. By spring of 1928 he was granted a fortnight’s leave, to “recover from exhaustion.” It was another hint of a growing problem; Thomason was by now a “heavy social drinker,” a condition the Marine Corps had considerable experience with. As long as an officer performed his duties, and there were no public incidents, the corps would overlook alcoholism, even to the extent of covering medical treatment with euphemisms.
Thomason’s next project was a biography of Jeb Stuart. He was at his best writing about military men, and he had milked the First World War dry. He had been steeped from childhood in stories of the Civil War, from the men who had fought in it, and his own combat experience allowed him to empathize with those who had fought a half-century earlier. (“I remember the morning of July 18”—he had written his mother during the war—"without food for three days—literally—the last water 12 hours gone, on top of 18 hours on camions and a day and a night of marching—we went into battle—and it was a glorious day. There was one long dark road, and the might of France went on that road in two night marches—the Brigade was part of it—300,000 men and guns to push them home. Such a move it was that Jackson made at Chancellorsville, a thousand times magnified.”
In 1930 Jeb Stuart appeared in six installments in Scribner’s and then as a book—his fourth. Again, it met universal critical acclaim (Thomason, apparently, never received a bad review for any of his work); it was not only competent history but literature as well, and it sold briskly.
The next assignment, late that year, was to the Legation Guard at the embassy in Peking, a plum posting: eight servants, not to mention stable hands, and a bustling social life. Thomason was even able to maintain a string of polo ponies.
In 1933 active fighting broke out between the Japanese and Chinese units near Shanghai; Thomason wangled a post as observer with the Japanese troops and witnessed much of the fighting. Despite the Bushido code of the officers (whom he found “good drinking companions”), he reported Japanese organization, training, communications, and enlisted men’s spirit lacking—by no means up to Marine Corps standards.
The tour ended late in 1933; there was trouble in Nicaragua, and Thomason hoped for a posting with the forces being sent. He was getting a bit too prominent, however, for the Marine Corps to bury him in remote expeditionary forces—he was far and away the most famous Marine officer in the country—and to his initial consternation, he was posted as junior Marine Corps aide to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Henry Roosevelt. Many would have welcomed the position, on the fringes of policy level and with easy access to the cream of Washington society. But it wasn’t Marine mainstream, it was a sideline, and Thomason feared he wouldn’t be getting his ticket punched for the field-grade promotions that lay ahead.
Nevertheless, within six months he was promoted to major, and in June of 1937 he was ordered to the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, as a student—and was promoted to lieutenant colonel. The assignment was gratifying; everyone knew there was a war in the not-too-distant offing, and Thomason had been away from duty with the troops since 1933. The Naval War College wasn’t troop duty either, but it was the seedbed for high command, and the promotion showed he was still on track. In 1938 he went to train platoon leaders at Camp Pendleton, the San Diego Marine Corps base, and then took command of a rifle regiment. This was more like it, although the combat units had changed. They were smaller, but with twice the firepower and all kinds of new weapons and equipment: artillery, radios, armor, amphibious vehicles, and Marine airplanes for ground support.
Thomason, essentially a rifle-and-bayonet Old Breed Marine, was now forty-six, and feeling the strain. He worked long, hard hours, with a grueling weekly twenty-mile march. War came to Europe, and a thrill of expectation ran through the Marine Corps; it was about to expand enormously (although few dreamed the tight-knit band of 1,192 officers and 15,343 men in the mid-1950s would peak fortyfold by V-J Day, when some 669,100 men and women had served). The Old Breed officers, with First World War ribbons, could look forward to brigade, even divisional, commands. The lean years were over.
Thomason was technically fit for duty, but the long years of late-night socializing—and alcohol—had taken their toll. He carried himself well, and he still had hopes of higher command. Only in the medical record were there hints all was not well, with sporadic hospitalization for “overwork.”
In June of 1940 he was relieved of his command and ordered to Washington, assigned the Latin American desk in the Office of Naval Intelligence. It was a blow that shattered all his hopes; not only was the ONI a sideline, but the Latin American desk was a sideline to a sideline. His service record was outstanding; his service reputation, at the levels that counted, was not. Those carefully picking the commanders who would soon be leading a new Marine Corps into battle were all too well aware of what Thomason’s medical record had glossed over. After twenty-three years of service, he had seen his last duty with the troops, and he knew it.
He made the best of it, of course, and kept writing. In early 1941 Scribner’s published Lone Star Preacher, a series of loosely linked Civil War stories based on the circuit-riding Methodist preacher, the “Uncle John” of his childhood, who had been transmogrified into Church Elder Praxiteles Swan; parts had been serialized in The Saturday Evening Post. It was, perhaps, his best work, after Fix Bayonets!.
Not long after, Scribner’s published —and a Few Marines, a collection of thirty-seven of his earlier pieces, and with several of his books in print, Thomason had reached the height of his literary reputation. Even a year into the war, he was unquestionably the best-known Marine officer in America.
Despite the presence of Lt. Col. Laurence Stallings in his section (his old companion, willow leg and all, had gotten himself returned to active duty), Thomason still hungered for combat assignment, and Adm. Chester Nimitz, an old friend, offered him the post of war-plans officer and inspector of Marine bases on his staff at Pearl Harbor. Thomason was still sidelined, but it was the best sideline seat there was, and more than he expected. He made the most of it; he toured the entire Pacific theater of operations—with a stop at Guadalcanal, still not entirely secured. He reached the Japanese airfield at Munda even as the Marines were taking it; he was in an antiaircraft gun pit when a Japanese dive bomber struck, killing the entire crew. He’d made it to combat after all, if only as a visiting fireman.
It was all a bit too much; he was hospitalized for a fortnight in Australia with what was diagnosed as double pneumonia, and on his return to Pearl Harbor it was obvious to all he wasn’t fit for duty. He had, during the tour, fallen off a pier in the forward area in broad daylight, and although Nimitz tried to get the general to reconsider, Gen. Thomas Holcomb, U.S.M.C., in whose area the embarrassing incident occurred, insisted Thomason be sent home (out of “solicitude for my health,” as Thomason tactfully put it in a letter to his mother).
By August of 1943 he was back at Camp Elliott—if not in disgrace, with the remnants of his service career in tatters. By Christmas he was back for a short spell in the Naval Hospital at San Diego; on March 12, 1944, aged fifty-one, he died there. There had been ulcers, and cardiovascular problems, and unquestionably overwork—all vastly complicated by alcohol. The marvel is, that with such handicaps he had continued to function so remarkably and productively, in two demanding careers, for the last decade of his life.
The Navy looks after its own. Within weeks a new-construction Sumner-class destroyer was named the USS John W. Thomason (DD 760). Commissioned too late for service in World War II, she earned battle stars in Korea and Vietnam and in 1974 was sold to the Republic of China; as the Nan Yang (Southern Sun) of the ROC Navy, she soldiers on to this day.
Thomason’s mother survived him, dying at ninety-three in 1964. His son Jack, a Marine Corps major, died in a transport crash in Calcutta in 1947; his widow Leda died in 1986. Three sisters (the eldest ninety-nine) survive; a niece and her husband, Dr. and Mrs. Thomas C. Cole, Jr., live in the magnificently restored family home in Huntsville.
John W. Thomason was the prototype of a vanished Marine Corps era; the Old Breed survived from the First World War until it was submerged by the hordes of new recruits in the Second. He was a hugely competent writer, if not from the top literary drawer, at the very top of the second. His characters were neither complex nor deep (with the possible exception of Praxiteles Swan), but they were alive, men (and women) of action, with no forced macho overtones, and their dialogue was vivid and rang true; for all his physical problems, Thomason never suffered from a tin ear.
His prose, moreover, is unique; he shares with Rudyard Kipling and H. H. Munro (Saki) the distinction of having stamped his identity on every paragraph. Nothing he wrote could ever be mistaken for anyone else’s work. His writing was lean and muscular (not always a favorite adjective with current critics), but it was also sensitive, and it carried his stories buoyantly, with never a word wasted. His values were clean and clear-cut; those aspiring to acquire the elements of literary style can do far worse than turning to his pages. His illustrations were equally unique; his simplest sketch can’t be confused with that of any other artist.
Few remember him now (there are, astonishingly, even Marines who can’t identify him), but for decades he stood for the Marine Corps, for the Old Corps and its old values, and for high adventure in distant and exotic climes. He was always in perfect tune with his times, and his niche in the American literary heritage is secure.