Each of our veterans has his or her own unique story to tell about their experiences in the U.S. armed forces. We are pleased to share a few of them with you.
(Carol Stream, IL) Unable to “sit on the sidelines” during World War II, Robert V. Thompson enlisted in the United States Army Air Force on August 14 1942, trained in radio maintenance, and served on two Eighth Army Air Force bases outside of London, England from June 7, 1943 through December 10, 1945. As a Staff Sergeant, he, along with a crew of two to four other radio mechanics, daily inspected the radios, antennae and intercom systems of approximately fourteen to sixteen B-17 bombers, “red-lining” those that failed the inspection. He recalls one pilot, who often disagreed with the radio mechanics assessments, arguing his plane was unworthy of flying combat missions into occupied territories.
Sergeant Thompson arrived in England via Scotland aboard the Queen Mary on its first voyage after colliding on October 2, 1942 with the HMS Curacoa, which was providing it with anti-aircraft protection in the Irish Sea. Sergeant Thompson recalls becoming frightened when informed that the Queen Mary would be sailing unescorted across the Atlantic to England, relying on its speed to evade encounters with Nazi U-boats. Compounding his fear, he noted, was the “skinny” floatation vest he was given to use in case of an attack upon the ship in the Atlantic Ocean. The sinking of the HMS Curacao by the Queen Mary resulted in the loss of three hundred and thirty-eight out of four-hundred thirty-nine sailors and was not reported publicly until after the conclusion of World War II because of national security concerns.
“War is hell,” Staff Sergeant Thompson recalls, quoting Union Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman. He recalls “a lot of kids” from his hometown had been killed during the war, including a young man, who aspired to be a priest, and another, who had been judged his high school’s all-time best athlete. He also recalls that one of the friends he had made during his military service was shot and killed by a Japanese sniper on Peleliu during the time when the island was thought to have been secured by allied forces. He also remembers the unrecovered human carnage he and other service men stumbled upon shortly after arriving at Alconbury Airfield that followed the explosion of a five-hundred-pound bomb that was being loaded on a B-17 Flying Fortress. According to military records, the explosion killed nineteen airmen, injured twenty-one others, destroyed four B-17 Flying Fortresses and damaged eleven others. The Eighth Army Airforce in which he served, military records indicate, suffered 47,483 casualties, approximately one-half of all Army Air Force casualties.
Sergeant Thompson enlisted in the military hoping to become a pilot, but could not because of a “bad eye.” After completing boot camp in Atlantic City New Jersey, where he was billeted in a major hotel, he was transferred by train to Truax Field in Wisconsin, which was a major training site for radio operators and mechanics. He honed the radio skills he learned at Truax Field by working on planes on an army airfield in South Dakota. Sergeant Thompson also was stationed in Florida and Maryland before going overseas.
Despite the hellish nature of war, Sergeant Thompson “liked” serving in the military, in large part, because of the numerous “really nice fellows” he met. He recalls receiving his first umbrella while serving and earning one hundred ten dollars per month in pay, nearly twice as much as he had been paid as a civilian before the war. In recalling his military pay, Sergeant Thompson recounted how his family of origin “lost everything” in the Great Depression.
After the war Sergeant Thompson returned home to Chicago via Pennsylvania. He considered enrolling in college and, in 1947, reenlisting in the military. He married twice, his second wife was from Norway and was living there from April 1940 to May 1945 when it was under Nazi occupation. With his second wife he had three children, two sons and a daughter. She died in their thirty-seventh year of marriage. Sergeant Thompson spend most of adult life working as a mechanical inspector for American Telephone and Telegraph.
Staff Sergeant Thompson was born in Aurora, Illinois, but raised mostly in Chicago. He is the youngest of two children, his older sibling being a sister. He currently resides in Carol Stream and enjoys reading mystery novels and the magazine of the 8th Air Force Historical Society, watching sporting events on television, and dining out with his neighbors. He exercises every day on a stationary bike and misses driving. Sergeant Thompson’s last World War II buddy died in December of 2015.
Thank you so very much for your World War II service to our country and enjoy your well-deserved trip to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.