I believe most of us carry ghosts we hold close. I received the phone call about Sgt Thomas while shopping for my wife’s valentine gift. It was déjà vu—the same sense of disconnect I felt when I learned my brother had been killed. Sergeant Thomas has been in my thoughts each day for more than forty years. And each day I’ve thought about what I would say if I met him.
I never mentioned Sgt Thomas to anyone because for many years I rarely mentioned my Vietnam experience and besides, I didn’t know his name. In retrospect, I think it was his quiet sense of confidence that impressed me. I’m sure he never noticed me.
I first saw him the summer of 1968. He was an army noncommissioned officer (NCO) and I was navy—cox’n of our armor troop carrier river boat. He and his platoon rode our boat several times when we went out on operations.
During an ambush on August 18, 1968, Sgt Thomas came topside and manned a machine gun that had been abandoned. Moments later his chest took the full brunt of a rocket propelled grenade blast when it burned through the armor of the gun turret he was in. I remember how his flak jacket—protective vest—was shredded. For many years I thought he had been killed. At a Mobile Riverine Force Reunion in 2013 I learned the sergeant’s last name—Thomas.
In 2013, after I learned his name, I wrote in my blog, “I wonder if Sergeant Thomas was the senior man on board ATC 112-11 on August 18. I believe in the chaos of the day his act of heroism went unnoticed and unrecorded. I would very much like to identify the sergeant. If he did not survive his wounds, his family deserves to know of his actions. If he did survive, and is still alive, I would very much like to meet him.”
Within a few weeks of posting that message I began receiving clues to his identity. One man sent me a photo of Sergeant Thomas.
About six months ago Sgt Thomas’ company commander, Captain Pease, called me. He had read about my search for Thomas. On Feb 11, 2015, the captain called again. He had discovered orders awarding Combat Infantryman Badges (CIB) with Thomas’ name listed on it. I got the full name, rank, service number, social security number. I forwarded that information to friends who have been active in the search and less than twenty-four hours later I received my answer. Sergeant First Class Patrick Thomas Jr is buried in Durham, North Carolina.
I’ve always known that if I learned the sergeant’s identity I would initiate the process of having an award such as the Silver Star awarded to him if he hadn’t received one. The ambush is well documented: An excerpt from our River Assault Division officer’s Navy Cross citation for that ambush reads,
“James Rad Nelson (570611), Lieutenant, U.S. Navy, for extraordinary heroism on 18 August 1968 while engaged in riverine assault operations against communist aggressor forces in the Republic of Vietnam. As Commander River Assault Division 112, Task Force 117 (TF-117), consisting of twelve river assault craft, Lieutenant Nelson conducted operations along the Hai Muoi Tarn Canal in Dinh Tuong Province. Shortly after noon, the assault boat column was attacked by what was later estimated to be a Viet Cong battalion.”
So now the award must be posthumous. His family deserves to know of his heroism.