Thompson recalls hardships during WWII

Lenonard Thompson was born May 2, 1918 in Adams County. He was drafted during World War II into the United States Army in the middle of 1942 and became a part of the 924 Engineer Company.

For The Record

Lenonard Thompson was born May 2, 1918 in Adams County. He was drafted during World War II into the United States Army in the middle of 1942 and became a part of the 924 Engineer Company. He eventually joined the 1905 Engineer Aviation Battalion, which he would later deploy with. Thompson was sworn into the service at Fort Snelling (Minnesota), and completed 13 weeks of Basic Combat Training (BCT) at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, leaving behind a wife and a 10-day-old daughter at home.

A young Leonard Thompson. (Courtesy Photo)
A young Leonard Thompson. (Courtesy Photo)

In the first few days of training, Thompson remembers soldiers being pushed through medical stations receiving vaccinations, much like cattle. A few men fainted after getting the shots, but luckily he wasn’t one of them.

Once Thompson completed his training, he was sent to Camp Shanks in Rockland County, Orangeburg, New York—Camp Shanks was used between 1943 and 1946 as a staging area for troops going overseas and was used as a hospital at the end of WWII, it was closed and sold after the war.

Thompson and his fellow soldiers were told that they would be in the camp for a few days, so the soldiers decided to do some laundry. After the clothes were washed and wrung out, the soldiers were informed they were moving out. The soldiers had to either pack up their wet clothes, or wear them to dry as they boarded the ship.

Thompson spent the next 40 days on that ship. He was one of the lucky few who did not get seasick.

The ship made a path down to Rio, Brazil and crossed the equator before stopping in Antarctica and finally heading for Bombay, India. The passage from Antarctica to Bombay was the longest stretch. According to Thompson, the ship was supposed to stop in Cape Town, South Africa but was detoured because of the heavy German presence.

The food on the ship was scarce, and the Captain of the company volunteered the entire unit for Kitchen Police (KP) duty. This meant that Thompson’s company got to eat and prepare meals for the entire ship and clean up the mess hall. Thompson remembers men standing outside the mess hall in the hallway begging the soldiers on KP duty for food. He and his fellow soldiers began stuffing oranges and apples into their lifebelts and passing them out to the hungry soldiers at the end of the day. None of the fruit ever made it back to his bunk, Thompson said.

In the 40 days on the ship, two men died, the only casualties out of Thompson’s company. They were buried at sea.

When the ship arrived in Bombay, the men unloaded at a rest camp and Thompson remembers being given a loaf of bread to share between five or six men, including himself. “It had a wooly appearance, like they had dropped it and kicked it in the street” he stated. But they were hungry, and so they ate it. Thompson noticed that the level of poverty in India was high. Kids were starving in the street when they arrived, pleading for food and in poor health. Some were crippled, most were living with some form of health issue.

Thompson’s duty during the war was building roads and culverts in India. It rained so often that they would dig a culvert one day, and have to completely re-do it again the next day, because it would be washed out. Thompson said “We just forgot being dry,” and remembered it rained almost every day for six months. Because of the constant moisture, many soldiers were affected by mold and fungi. Thompson experienced a fungus on his feet and hands that has been stubborn to treat as a lasting effect from his time spent overseas. Thompson’s company built about 400 miles of road that ended by Bauma, China. He worked on the Ledo Road, which was a main supply route for the Western Allies as an alternative to the Burma Road that had been upheaved by the Japanese army in 1942. The road was built by 15,000 American soldiers and 35,000 local workers. Thompson recalls that Chinese soldiers would steal anything they could from the convoys on the Ledo Road, including guns and howitzers ( a

type of cannon used at a high angle of elevation).
Commodities were hard to come by overseas. Coffee, for example, was scarce; Thompson received one package of coffee from his sister in the mail. The soldiers brewed it in a combat helmet and once soldiers could smell the distinct aroma of coffee, they all lined up for a small taste. Thompson also mentioned a time when a crate fell off the back of a truck. It was full of canned pears. The soldiers were happy to get a treat.

Although Thompson never saw combat, there was a point where he was surrounded on a hill by the enemy. One of the soldiers had a tank radio and tuned it to a broadcast by the infamous Tokyo Rose; a pseudo-name given by the Allies to the female Japanese broadcaster. Tokyo Rose would broadcast Japanese propaganda every night to the Allies on the radio in an attempt to taunt the Americans. Thompson recalls his experience on the radio with her, reciting what she had said: “I know just where you are on this hill, if you go half a mile south the friendly Japanese will give you food. I know you don’t have anything to eat why don’t you go right down the hill and you will have nothing to worry about,” he said. They thumbed their noses to the radio and didn’t fall for the attempt to lure them into dangerous territory.

Enemies weren’t the only danger in the jungle of India. Thompson and his fellow soldiers were parked close to a small river one night, 20-30 feet wide. He had built a shack with his friend and covered it with a tarp to stay dry. “All at once, a lion, he must’ve been a big one. You can’t imagine how he sounded! I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up.” Thompson said as he explained the close call he had with an Asiatic lion.

Another encounter with a large snake left Thompson hungry. While working on one of the roads, he noticed a 25-foot long anaconda had slithered out of a nearby tree. The soldiers killed the snake, and a few natives walked by and asked if they could have some of the meat. Thompson said, “it looked like pork chops, I could have eaten it raw,” but no one saved any of the meat to eat. Thompson walked out into the jungle in the middle of the day at one point, and couldn’t believe how dark it was under the jungle’s heavy foliage. “You could step on a twig and it sounded like a cannon shot.” He explained that when you looked down to the jungle floor, the excess phosphorus in the soil had given the ground an eerie glow and appeared to glow in the dark.

Mail was hard to receive and send during World War II. Thompson wasn’t allowed to disclose his location in his letters back home, making it difficult for his family to know if he was safe. In Thompson’s time overseas, he had the opportunity to experience V-Mail. V-Mail stands for Victory Mail and was introduced during the war to reduce the cost of sending letters through the military postal system. V-Mail letters would be censored, copied to microfilm, and printed back to paper upon arrival of the letters’ final destination.

Thompson spent the years serving in WWII. When he returned home his eldest daughter, Joyce Richardson, was almost three years old. He still remembers the day he came home towards the end of December 1945. “I got off the train in Dickinson and the platform was empty. The wind was howling 40 miles an hour and it was 20 degrees below zero.”

Upon arriving home, Thompson bought a farm near Regent in 1948 and still lives there today. He made his life as a farmer, working with his brother-in-law, and had three daughters with his wife. Thompson has kept in contact with a Chinese friend he met during the war and even had him visit North Dakota a few times.

In 1948 Thompson joined the American Legion but didn’t keep his membership continuous. He rejoined the Legion after some time and 2016 marks 60 years that he has been a continuous member.

Thompson visited Washington, D.C. in 2009 with his daughter Joyce, and took part of the Honor Flight where he was given a tour of the Arlington Cemetery and the World War II Memorial. He was given dog tags and other memorabilia. He says that the government showed him a lot of the world, and he

will forever be thankful for that. Thompson received a few medals from his service, including the Asiatic Pacific Campaign medal, a Good Conduct medal, and a World War II Medal. His last rank in the military was T3, which was a technician equivalent to a Staff Sergeant.

The Adams County Record would like to thank Thompson, and all veterans, for their service.