Few things in this world are stronger than the bonds forged by troops who fought together in combat. Those who survive life-threatening ordeals on the battlefield become closer in ways that others may never understand. When one of them loses their closest friend, it's a tragedy that hurts forever.
What could be a more fitting for the coming Memorial Day than to write about what that friend means to you?
This memorial day, AARP is collecting stories about the friendships forged in war. Close friendships forged on the front lines of Vietnam and in the Nazi POW camps of World War II all the way to the remote combat outposts of Iraq. Veterans are writing stories of the best friends they met during these trying times. Two crewman stationed aboard the ill-fated USS Indianapolis, Marines fighting in the frozen wastes around the Chosin Reservoir, a young lieutenant and his radioman in the jungles of Vietnam.
Some survived the war. Many did not. What they have in common is that they'll never be forgotten. Corporal Charles Thomas was that buddy for Lt. Karl Marlantes.
Marlantes in Vietnam after an eye injury.(Courtesy of Karl Marlantes)
Marlantes was a newly-christened Marine in Vietnam when Thomas was assigned to be his radioman. Like any good young officer, Marlantes listened to his more experienced corporal when he made suggestions. The young man even saved his lieutenant's life on a mission in the mountains near the DMZ. Marlantes told AARP The Magazine:
"In early December 1968, we were on a long mission, high in the mountains, and it was monsoon time. We couldn't get resupplied and were without food for three or four days. It was also cold, but we had no extra clothes, just the stuff rotting on us. One night I got hypothermic, really hypothermic. I couldn't think and started shivering. Everybody knew hypothermia kills you. And Thomas just laid me on the ground and wrapped a quilted poncho liner around us and hugged me. And then his body heat got me back. Saved my life."
Marlantes receiving the Navy Cross.(Courtesy of Karl Marlantes)
Corporal Thomas was an outstanding Marine in combat and a talented radioman. Sadly, during an assault on an NVA position in 1969, Marlantes had to send Cpl. Thomas around the hill to set up an ambush. Following his orders, Thomas left the safety of his cover and made a dash for the objective with his squad. That's when three rocket-propelled grenades struck, killing him and one other. Marlantes, now 73, recalled the moments afterward for AARP:
"I had to go through all the guys' bodies to pull out, if you can believe this, anything like pictures of naked girls, so their parents wouldn't be upset — it's bad enough that their kid comes home in a body bag. And I pulled a letter out of Thomas' pocket from his mother and remember it said, "Don't you worry, Butch." We knew each other only by last names and nicknames. I never knew he was Butch, that his mother called him that. "Don't you worry, Butch, you'll be home in just 11 more days."
Watch Karl Marlantes look back and tell the story of Cpl. Charles Thomas.