Much as once a week I like to take time off to cover warships (Wednesdays), on Sundays (when I feel like working), I like to cover military art and the painters, illustrators, sculptors, and the like that produced them.
Combat Gallery Sunday: The Martial Art of Col. John W. Thomason, Jr., USMC
Born in Huntsville, Texas, 28 February 1893, John Thomason was a Southerner with a family tree steeped in military tradition. His grandfather was no less a person than Thomas Jewett “TJ” Goree, one of Longstreet’s closest aides, who was immortalized in Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels.
An uncle and four great-uncles had also been Confederate officers. As noted by Donald Morris in an excellent 1993 article on Thomason, Grandfather Goree was closer to John than his father was, and taught him to ride, hunt, and fish while he developed a passion for sketching.
It should have come as no surprise that, after spending two years at the Art Students League in New York City, and a year as a cub reporter for the Houston Chronicle while training at civilian military camps during the summers, that Thomason rushed to join the Marines when the U.S. entered World War I in April 1917.
After a good bit of stateside training, 1st Lt. John W. Thomason, Jr., U.S.M.C., arrived in France in May 1918, in the 1/5 Marines, part of the 2d Division, American Expeditionary Forces. Fighting with his platoon (and later as Executive Officer of the 49th Company) in five major engagements and fourteen battles, including Belleau Wood, Château-Thierry, San Mihiel, Soissons, and Mont Blanc, Thomason led from the front.
As noted by the Naval History and Heritage Command, “When a German machine gun nest held up a Marine advance at Soissons 18 July 1918, Thomason and one of his men fearlessly advanced on the position and killed 13 of the enemy. For his heroism he received the Navy Cross and the Silver Star.”
Remaining in the Marines during the “peacetime” between the two World Wars, Thomason found time to write and illustrate together no less than 11 books including Fix Bayonets (1926), Jeb Stuart (1930), Gone to Texas (1937), and Lone Star Preacher (1941) while serving a very diverse career that included deploying to Cuba, Nicaragua, China (where he was at the Legation in Peking in the 1930s and documented the China horse marines in his sketches during his time as the commander of the 38th Company); served as commander of the 103-man Marine det on the cruiser USS Rochester; serving as an aide to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Col. Henry Roosevelt; and worked at the Latin-American desk of the Office of Naval Intelligence just prior to Pearl Harbor.
When WWII came to the U.S., Thomason was made a Colonel attached to Nimtz’s staff and, though in poor health due to ulcers and cardiovascular issues, served as war-plans officer and inspector of Marine land bases. He toured forward areas in the Solomons and survived a Japanese air attack that left all the other men in his slit trench dead.
Coming down with double pneumonia and his health continuing to decline, he was released and shipped back to the West Coast for stateside duty. There, at the Naval Hospital at San Diego on March 12, 1944, he died at age 51.
A well-known author and something of the W.E.B. Griffin of his time, he was carried by special train to Oakwood Cemetery, Huntsville, while the state of Texas lowered flags to half-staff for the week of his interment.
Recognizing his service, SECNAV named the new Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer, DD-760, after the late Col. Thomason 30 September 1944; sponsored by his widow. USS John W. Thomason remained on the Navy List, seeing action in Korea and Vietnam and having 10 battlestars to show for it, until 1974 when she was transferred to the Republic of China, serving as the ROCS Nan Yang (DD-17) until 2000.
As for the author, his bestseller Fix Bayonets is still in publication and is considered by many to be perhaps the finest account of Americans in the Great War.
His portrait hangs in the Texas Hall of Heroes at the Capitol in Austin. In addition, the Graphic Arts Building at Sam Houston State University bears his name, as does the special collections room of the university library, which houses a permanent exhibit of his drawings and manuscripts. The University of Texas at Austin also holds a number of his papers.
Besides the extensive collection maintained by the Navy and Marines, Sam Houston University’s Newton Gresham Library has over 3,900 of his works ranging from photos to sketches to paintings online.
Thank you for your work, sir.