December 22, 2017 11:10 AM
It was just before Christmas 50 years ago when President Lyndon Baines Johnson paid a surprise visit to U.S. military personnel gathered at Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam.
The holiday visit was part of a whirlwind trip that started in Australia for the funeral of prime minister Harold Holt, and would go on to include a meeting at the Vatican in which LBJ conferred with Pope Paul VI on the situation in Vietnam, which was growing increasingly more divisive back in the United States.
Together with Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. forces, the former president extended Christmas greetings to the troops while personally awarding decorations to a number of them.
Among that group was a 24-year-old Minnesotan.
Then-Army Specialist Fourth Class William Thomas, a 1961 Minnetonka High School graduate, was presented with the Distinguished Service Cross for actions in combat the month before.
However, that meeting with LBJ, and the details that led up to it, was a story Thomas never shared with his children.
In fact, the tale would not fully come to their attention until earlier this year - after their father died at the age of 73 following a brief illness last April.
"I think he just really didn't see himself as having committed an act of bravery," said Shawn Thomas, one of his three children and a resident of Grand Rapids.
"He felt like he was doing his duty more than anything. And he had some issues returning to regular life, so I don't think it was that much fun for him to look back on that time."
But Thomas' actions were indeed an example of bravery under fire.
According to the citation, while serving as a rifle guard leader conducting a reconnaissance patrol on a hill near Dak To in November of 1967, Thomas' squad had penetrated the perimeter of an entrenched North Vietnamese battalion. He and his men then came under intense fire from fortified bunkers.
The squad was forced to return to its company's perimeter. But Thomas remained at the scene of battle, covering the squad's withdrawal armed with a shotgun and grenade launcher.
After rejoining his men, he learned another soldier was left critically wounded near the North Vietnamese position. Under fire, Thomas crawled back up the hill and retrieved the man, personally treating his wounds, before returning to direct artillery strikes against the bunker.
Then later, when another squad found itself under fire from a spider-hole emplacement, Thomas again crawled through the onslaught of bullets, threw a hand grenade into the hole and silenced the weapon. He then knocked over an enemy soldier who had been aiming his weapon at the U.S. commander before destroying three more enemy bunkers on his own.
"Specialist Four Thomas' extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army," the citation read.
Thomas did talk of his time in Vietnam and of his brief meeting with the former president with his wife Pauline, to whom he had grown up next door in Minnetonka and married upon his return from the conflict.
The two later divorced, but remained friendly until his death this past spring.
"They didn't know (LBJ) was going to be there," Pauline Thomas Zimmerman said. "They were just told to gather at this base and the President showed up."
Despite his ex-wife's urging, though, Thomas never fully described his time in Vietnam and the multiple honors he earned there to his children.
"I'd run across the medals when I was a kid going through the closet," Shawn Thomas said. "But I was a kid, and I didn't really recognize the significance of them at the time.
"At the funeral, the person from the Army office in Two Harbors (the family had long resided on the North Shore) came and read the citation. That was the first time I'd really heard all those details."
During his visit with the troops that December day in 1967, Johnson spoke of the pride he, their family members and other loved ones held for them.
"Your Commander in Chief is very, very proud of you," Johnson said. "I wish I could personally show you that admiration and affection I feel for the gallant men who lead the best military force ever put on the battlefield.
"But please know that we are with you. We are for you. We will be there until the end."
Shawn Thomas said those sentiments still ring true 50 years later when he thinks about his father and his time in Vietnam.
"My dad was always a character-first kind of guy," he said. "So to hear he did all of that was amazing. But it was also in keeping with who he was as a person."
Tellingly, his son said family members found the medals and other items from his father's military service stored in a closet, or scattered in other locations around his home. He is planning on putting them in a place of honor.
"I want to gather all of his medals, the flag he received - all of that stuff - to make a big plaque," he said. "I want to make sure my kids know about all the things he did."
Updated: December 22, 2017 11:10 AM
Created: December 21, 2017 11:26 AM
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