Archive for the ‘William B. Thompson’ category

“Pop” Thompson Zig-Zagged Across the Atlantic in Merchant Marine Vessals During WWII

December 27, 2009

My grandfather, William Boner Thompson, will always be remembered for his avid consumption of World War II history books. On visits to his homes in Bronxville or Pasadena, we would invariably find him sitting forward on the living room sofa, engulfed in a Chesterfield cloud, immersed in a tome. It turns out that most of these war books were about the United States’ merchant marine fleet. A local bookstore would automatically send him freshly published volumes. 

Bill Thompson wasn’t young– he was about 32–when he went off to fight in World War II, leaving his wife behind with three young boys. Upset with reports about what the Nazis were doing to Jews in Europe, he first tried to enlist in the U.S. Navy but was told he was too old. Then, like many concerned citizens of his age, he tried to enlist in the Canadian Navy. At this point the U.S. Navy gave him a position on a Merchant Marine boat that crisscrossed the Atlantic, carrying supplies.

The merchant marine fleet was absolutely critical to the Allied war effort; many historians believe the war could not have been won without it. The boats carried important supplies from U.S. factories to battalions all over the world. The fleet was of such strategic importance that the German Army believed that if it could cut off these shipments it might be able to win the war.

The merchant marine boats used to sail across the Atlantic in haphazard patterns to avoid torpedo fire. German U-Boats were patrolling the waters off Long Island when my grandfather first left from New York harbor. He was lucky to have survived.

Newspapers reports would play down how often merchant marine boats were sunk to hide from the public, and the enemy, the scope of the supply effort. They would run occasional reports that a couple medium-sized Allied ships had been sunk in the Atlantic, or something to that effect. The reality was that in 1942, the high-water mark for ship sinkings, at least 33 ships were sunk each week. 

In the meantime, U.S. factories raced to produce merchant vessels faster than the Germans could sink them. Production rose from less than 100 boats in 1941, to 750 in 1942, to almost 2000 in 1943. The tide finally turned in 1943; the first year the U.S. produced more ships than the Germans sunk. 

Casualties aboard these boats were much higher than in the U.S. military at large. By some estimates, one in 26 mariners serving aboard merchant ships in WWII died in the line of duty, a greater percentage of war casualties than all other U.S. services. All told, about 8,300 mariners were killed–by submarines, mines, aircraft, and the elements. Another 12,000 were wounded.

My grandfather was part of a massive U.S. program to recruit and train mariners. The number of mariners was increased from a pre-war total of 55,000 to more than 215,000 during the war. 

Pop, it is clear, spent three years living on borrowed time. When he would come home on leave, Meany would go to see him. They would drink in hotels and wonder whether they would ever see each other again.

Though Pop was allowed to write home to his family, he couldn’t give clues to his whereabouts. But it was pretty clear from one June 1944 letter that he watched from a boat off the coast of Normandy as the troops stormed the shore.

Later in life, William Boner Thompson became CEO of Vinnell Corporation, a California-based engineering and construction firm that built public works and military facilities throughout the world.

Patricia Thompson Visits Ancestral Home

August 13, 2009

Patricia Thompson, wife of William B. Thompson, took us on a tour of the Galveston home where her paternal grandmother, Beatrice Moser, lived during the early 1900s. Here is Patricia posing with her two daughters, Katie and Liza. Patricia, who grew up in Houston, remembers visiting the home often as a child.

Dallas August 2009 073

The family would come to Galveston on weekends to visit relatives, go to the beach, and dine at her father’s favorite restaurant, Gaidos’, the same place where we dined on Monday night! Patricia remembers these trips fondly. Her father wouldn’t let the family leave Houston until 3 p.m. so that the children wouldn’t burn in the afternoon sun. They would go to Stewart Beach, where Patricia took her children on Tuesday afternoon.

Beatrice, whose family immigrated from Portugal, survived the Great Flood of 1900 in this house; she was in her teens at the time.  Her husband-to-be made it through the calamity by going to a church and tying himself to the steeple alongside the priest, so that they wouldn’t be thrown by the wind and waves.

Beatrice attended the former Ursuline School in Galveston. It was wiped out in the flood and moved to Dallas. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Liza and Katie attend that school today.

Beatrice had an older brother whose family was less fortunate. Though the brother survived, the rest of the family did not. They were caught in the storm at the family dairy farm. The great uncle luckily was at his office downtown, on higher ground.

Beatice and her husband owned a bar. It helped that her husband’s brother, Bill, was a cop.  Only one of the grandfather’s sisters married; the other were all teachers, which meant they always had jobs, even during the during the Great Depression. After their parents died, they continued to live in the the family house on Post Street. Patricia was unable to locate that house on this visit. Maybe next time.

The brother of Patricia’s grandfather, Bernard Roemer, was a priest who earned the title Monsignor.


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