Second Lieutenant Leland Evan Thomas

Insignia of VMSB-232, the Red Devils.
Insignia of VMSB-232, the Red Devils.

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Service Number:
 0-009964

Birth and Early Life:
Leland Thomas was born in Ontario, Oregon on September 20, 1918. His parents, Benjamin and Etta May Thomas, relocated to Fruitland, Idaho in the 1920s – Leland and his younger sister, Jeanette, grew up and attended school in the small town where their father ran a garage.

Enlistment and Boot Camp:
Thomas joined the Marine Corps Reserve on September 10, 1941. He wanted to fly, and just over a month after enlisting was accepted as an aviation cadet in the Navy Reserve. He was training in Florida when Pearl Harbor was attacked; Thomas would have to wait until April, 1942 to receive his commission as a Second Lieutenant, his wings as a dive-bomber pilot, and his assignment to duty with the “Red Devils” of VMSB-232.

Wartime Service:
After additional familiarization and training in California, Second Lieutenant Thomas boarded the carrier USS Long Island and set sail for the South Pacific. On August 20, 1942, his Dauntless dive-bomber was catapulted from the carrier and, along with eleven other bombers screened by 19 Wildcat fighters, made a 200 mile flight to the newly captured airfield on Guadalcanal. The “Red Devils” and the “Bulldogs” of VMF-223 would make up the island’s “Cactus Air Force.”

Thomas and his gunner, PFC Edward Lee Eades, soon made their presence known in the squadron. In an August 25 attack on enemy shipping, Thomas was credited with a damaging near-miss on the cruiser Jintsu, flagship of Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka (1). In the same attack, Eades splashed an enemy floatplane fighter – one of the first aerial kills recorded by the squadron. (2)

Following their initial success, Thomas and Eades’ life at “Cactus” settled into a semblance of routine. When an air raid was reported, all flyable bombers would take to the air and hover safely out of range; when enemy sea or ground targets were reported, the bombers were quickly loaded and sent to intercept. Daily patrols rounded out the flying schedule, while maintenance on the ground took up most of the air crew’s spare time.

By the end of his first year in the Marine Corps, Leland Thomas had racked up nearly a dozen missions. His next big success would come while leading a patrol on September 15 – after sighting three enemy warships, Thomas led an attack that badly damaged a destroyer. For his skill in fighting the Imperial Japanese Navy, Thomas was written up for the Distinguished Flying Cross. (3)

For heroism and extraordinary achievement as a pilot attached to a Marine Aircraft group during action against enemy Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands area on August 25 and Sept. 15, 1942, while vigorously attacking a hostile force composed of a light cruiser, four transports, and seven destroyers, Second Lieut. Thomas, by his expert marksmanship and superb flying skill, scored the second of two hits which sunk the light cruiser. Resolutely pursuing his task, he further contributed to the destruction of one large destroyer. On the latter date, after contacting a hostile light cruiser and two destroyers while a member of a two-plane aerial search, Second Lieut. Thomas immediately transmitted a report to his base and launched an aggressive attack, scoring several near misses on the enemy war ships. His indomitable fighting spirit was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. (4) 

Date Of Loss:
Leland Thomas may never have known about his decoration; he certainly did not live to wear it. On September 18, 1942, just two days before his 23rd birthday, Thomas was assigned to fly the morning anti-sub patrol. He and Eades climbed into their bomber and were aloft by 0535. Visibility was bad in all directions, but what remained of the American fleet off Guadalcanal was in dire need of all the protection it could get.

A nervous sailor on one of the ships heard an aircraft droning overhead. He likely couldn’t see it, but having dealt with daily raids by aggressive Japanese raiders, thought it better to shoot first and ask questions later. He opened fire; other gunners on other ships followed suit, and one of them scored a hit on their target – which turned out to be SBD-3 03347. The bomber fell in flames; one parachute could be seen drifting down behind it. (5)

Within minutes, a soaked, shaken, and livid PFC Edward Eades had been hauled from the water. A search was immediately undertaken for the wreckage of the plane, but neither it nor Lieutenant Leland Thomas could be found. He had lost his life to friendly fire. (6)

Sergeant Joseph Goble, who had just landed with Company B, 7th Marines, described the scene.

At about 10.30 a.m. word passed up and down the beach that at exactly 11.00 a.m. each day the Japs would hit us with an air raid. We got jumpy! We were told to dig in, but few of us bothered – we were too tired. A few minutes before 11.00 a.m. a low-flying plane came from the direction of Tologa. All the ships began firing at it. The plane banked to the right to try to escape the fire, but it was too late. The engine began smoking, and the pilot made a five or six mile circle up past the Matanikau River and back – to crash land just off the shore in front of us. So our first plane shot down was one of our own, trying to get back to refuel before the Jap air raid began. (7)

In 1944, Mrs. Etta Thomas and Miss Jeanette Thomas were present at the launch of a new destroyer escort, named for their son and brother. 

Next Of Kin:
Mother, Mrs. B. E. Thomas

Status Of Remains:
Lost at sea.

Memorial:
Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.
USS Leland E. Thomas (DE-420) was named in his honor.

_____
NOTES:
(1) Jintsu was struck first by Lt. Lawrence Baldinus; Thomas and Lt. Charles McAllister each scored near misses which were thought to have damaged the cruised further. Although the citations for decorations awarded after the attack mentioned the Jintsu as being sunk, in actuality she limped back to Truk for repairs.
(2) Private Lewis Macias, gunner for McAllister, also claimed one floatplane.
(3) Interestingly, the war diary for Marine Air Group 23 (Thomas’ parent unit) gives credit to 2nd Lt. Donald McAfferty and 2nd Lt. Homer V. Cook for the attack.
(4) http://payettecounty.info/military/obits/thomasleland.html
(5) War Diary, MAG-13. Some sources state that Thomas lost his life in action with the enemy; this was likely the public-facing version of the story, much easier to accept than a fatal case of mistaken identity.
(6) Edward Eades went on to have a long career in Marine Corps aviation, even earning a temporary commission towards the end of the war. He flew as a pilot, retired as a Master Sergeant, and died in 2010.
(7) Goble, Sergeant Joseph. Memoir submitted to The Lower Deck: Newsletter of the Warships & Marine Corps Museum, September 2002. Goble’s account provides an unparalleled account of the early days with B Company on Guadalcanal.

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