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A Life in His Care

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“Thomas, there is a right way and an army way. That’s why they take truck drivers and make them photographers and photographers, truck drivers. I’ll send your request for transfer, with my approval, ‘through channels,’ but you must finish this code course first. Do your duty and let’s see what happens.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said as I saluted the commanding officer. As I returned to my duties, my heart was heavy. I liked the army and was doing well, but I was trusting God to allow me to serve my country in the way He had gifted me.

Disappointing Assignment

The attack on Pearl Harbor took place on December 7, 1941, and in February 1942 I was drafted. I was assigned to Missouri’s Camp Crowder and was determined to be the best soldier possible. Having received Jesus Christ as my Savior, I purposed to honor Him in the army—I openly read my Bible and knelt at my bunk for prayer.

Since I was a photographer, I presumed my civilian experience would immediately qualify me for work in that area. When I was assigned to a transportation battalion, I was very disheartened.

I was on call every night to drive blackout to the nearby railhead to pick up new inductees. But I told the Lord I would trust Him to answer my prayer to be in a photo team. Then my name was posted to be shipped out.

Code School

The next day I was riding in a crowded railroad coach looking for a place to crash when an officer, standing on a seat, shouted out the names of those who would detrain at the next stop. About 200 of us unloaded in Tyler, Texas, where we would receive 13 weeks of Morse code training.

My competitive nature kicked in, and I worked to be top of the class. Still, I couldn’t quiet the Lord’s voice, reminding me to trust Him. That’s when I asked for permission to speak to our commander, showing him my civilian references and commendations. As he promised to send my request through channels, I assailed Heaven anew.

After graduation, I was shipped to North Carolina, where I was attached to an armored signal battalion on manuevers. I shed a few tears as my faith was being sorely tried.

Stars and Stripes

One warm day I was ordered to report to our company commander. What have I done wrong? I thought.

I entered his tent and saluted. He said he had received some papers “through channels” asking for a transfer for Private Thomas to a signal photo company. “Do you want to go?” he asked.

The Bible speaks of circumstances where our sorrow is turned to joy. I praised the Lord every mile to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where I joined the 163rd Signal Photo Company.

After training we shipped out to Africa and then to Italy, where we were part of the newly formed Fifth Army commanded by Lieutenant General Mark Clark. My first assignment was being his personal photographer. Nothing like starting at the top!

I traveled everywhere with the general and filmed a president, a king and a prime minister, as well as generals, ambassadors and dignitaries of every stripe.

A Secret Mission

After several months as General Clark’s photographer, I had been briefed that something big was in the air and to be available within 15 minutes’ notice, gear ready to go! On January 22, 1944, I was alerted and a convoy of vehicles, under full blackout, moved toward the Mediterranean. It was chilly, and the waves were choppy.

About half a dozen shallow draft boats were drawn up, powered by outboard motors. I got into one along with Major General Al Gruenther, the Fifth Army chief of staff. Our driver started out at high speed and immediately drowned the motor. As we sat rocking in the waves while the GI tried to restart it, I prayed earnestly, as were taking on water. Finally, the engine kicked over and the general quietly said, “I think you ought to go a bit slower.” What composure!

We drew alongside a PT boat, and as a swell lifted us, the general stepped onto the PT’s deck. On the next rise, I did the same with my camera gear.

As the sky lightened, I saw that we were with two other PT boats and an aerial escort of British Spitfires. We were on our way to Anzio! We came into the picket boats screening the cargo and personnel vessels. Men and material were moving rapidly toward land, and we got into DUKWs* that took us ashore. General Clark took a jeep to the command posts and left me to shoot photos for the record.

Landing at Anzio

Everywhere you looked there was frantic activity. Beach Masters had erected huge signs directing men, supplies and weapons toward their respective units. Troops were climbing down ladders on the LST’s and then moving toward shore in waist-deep water. I watched as one man made repeated “dives” for a 61-mm mortar tube he had dropped.

A nearby ship took a direct hit from the German planes that were bombing and strafing the beach! I could hear the ammunition “cooking off” from the heat as the vessel burned. Two men were dragging a drowned buddy from the water, crying out to him as they attempted to revive him. Others had teamed up to wring out their wet clothes.

The beach area, about seven or eight hundred yards long, was covered with organized confusion as ships moved in and out, their huge bow doors swung open to discharge all types of vehicles, some towing artillery and ammo. Engineers had a number of bulldozers ashore and were cutting roads into the dunes as teams were laying down steel matting to provide traction for the vehicles coming off the ships.

An L4 cub was bobbing in the water, having brought Brigadier General Lewis, the artillery officer of the Fifth Army, ashore. He was in officer-issue “pinks,” a dress uniform,
and as he moved toward me, several German planes strafed the beach.

We both hit the sand and lay there looking at each other. “Rank don’t mean a thing at a time like this,” Lewis muttered.

Thankfully, the landing had taken the enemy by surprise, and casualties were much lower than expected. By the time the enemy responded in force, a number of Allied divisions with their heavy equipment and weapons had moved off the immediate area and were digging in. By late afternoon we were taking casualties as the Germans made counterattacks.

About four hours after we landed, General Clark came back from his staff meetings, and the DUKWs took us back to the PT boats. About 10:30 p.m., I was back at the headquarters of the Army Pictorial Service in Caserta. I carried 18 4X5 film packs, the only pictures from the beachhead—a real “coup” for the Signal Corp since civilian photographers usually had preference in transportation. Colonel Guilette, head of APS, gave me a big ham sandwich and a cup of coffee. Since this was a “scoop,” I should have asked for another stripe…maybe I was too tired to speak up! Later, we received tear sheets from stateside papers where we saw many of the photos shot by the Signal Corp.

“Fear Thou Not . . .”

After 13 months and 4,000 negatives, my second request for transfer was granted, and I joined a three-man combat photo team.

Now any day I could be shelled and mortared as I ran the “mad miles,” roads and terrain features under full observation by enemy troops. They dialed in coordinates with highly accurate guns, and the roads were littered with shelled vehicles. I was almost killed by friendly fire as a salvo of 500-pound bombs dropped on top of me. And a sniper fired on me—but missed! Fear was a constant companion, and I bolstered my courage with Scripture, sang in my heart the many hymns I knew and prayed for my team buddies.

Terrain jobs were the worst. These assignments were dangerous because the photo team had to go into an area under cover of darkness and come out the same way. Once in position, I would carefully rise up and shoot the enemy terrain with a 50-percent overlap in a 180-degree panorama. Afterward, I immediately dropped down, heart pounding, until the tension eased. Fearfully, I would lift my voice in thanksgiving for His protection.

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Once, on such an assignment, my guides and I moved in total darkness toward Hill 775. We had been warned to watch for Germans and to take extra hand grenades. I could almost smell my fear as I expected a fire fight any moment. As we blundered along, a Scripture came to mind: “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God . . .” (Isa. 41:10, KJV). I had never memorized this verse, but I grasped it like a drowning man.

Moving forward, I thought I heard a voice but ignored it; then, I heard something again and whispered for my guides to stop. Unknowingly, we were moving through the second line of defense of the platoon on Hill 775 and were being challenged by their sentry. Only one challenge is necessary, but we had been hailed three times. Against a brightening sky we could see three GIs and a sandbagged machine gun. God had saved our lives as He used His Word to calm my fears enough to hear the sentry.

Once again our soldiers are in battle, putting their lives at risk. We cannot be there with them, but we can continually assail God for His care of them, just as He did for me so long ago. “Thou therefore endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier” (2 Tim. 2:3–4, KJV).

*DUKWs, popularly called “Ducks,” were amphibious trucks.

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