After graduating from Pensacola Naval Air Station in 1951, Ensign Bob Thomas served as a navigator aboard a Navy P-2V, twin-engine “Neptune” bomber. He flew intelligence missions with the “Blue Goose Squadron,” VP-22, part of the “Formosa Straits Patrol Force” that surveilled the China coast.
It was during one of Thomas’ 47 missions aboard a “Neptune” he saw another Navy patrol bomber get shot down. The 7-man crew of the luckless bomber was wrapping up its intelligence surveillance around the islands of Quemoy and Matsu in the Formosa Straits in 1953 when it was hit by ground fire from the Chinese mainland, he said. It ditched in the sea, but only half the crew survived the watery crash.
“We circled overhead in our “Neptune” for several hours protecting the downed crew from enemy capture any way we could,” Thomas wrote. “In the late afternoon an Air Sea Rescue PBM “flying boat” from Sangley Point Naval Air Station in the Philippines landed at sea and picked up survivors.
“In an effort to get airborne the pilot caught the PBM’s wing in a wave. It cartwheeled and crashed in flames. It’s a scene I shall never forget.
“We dropped life rafts and remained on station until a destroyer reached the crash scene and picked up 13 survivors of both accidents,” Thomas noted. “I can verify both the PBM crew and the “Neptune” crew were under hostile fire throughout that Sunday afternoon.
“After that I was sent to graduate school by the Navy. I got a degree in Meteorology with a minor Oceanography. Then I went aboard the carrier USS Shangri-La (CVA-38) as the meteorologist,” Thomas said. “The carrier was Adm. Thomas Moorer’s flagship.
“It was probably the most responsible job I had in the Navy. Based on my weather forecasts the carrier was sending out 80 aircraft on missions on a daily basis. Then they had to get them back safely aboard ship,” he said.
“Moorer would become Chief of Naval Operations. At one point his flagship took part in a NATO Exercise in the North Atlantic. I had a British meteorologist on board the carrier with me during that exercise.
“On our first day at sea I said to the British officer, ‘We’re going to brief Adm. Moorer about the weather. We were always the first ones to go see the admiral in the morning. I told the Brit: ‘You just follow me. I’ll have the maps with me and I’ll brief him.’
“We knocked on his sea cabin door.
‘Come on in,’ the admiral said.
“The British naval officer and I walked into Moorer’s cabin just as he was stepping out of the shower. He was standing there buck-nekkid!
“‘Go ahead and give me the weather briefing,’ he said nonchalantly.
“As you can imagine, I was holding the weather map trying to tell the admiral about the weather while he’s standing there in the all-together. He thanked us for the briefing and we left his quarters.
“When we got outside, the English officer said to me,’The admiral is kind of an informal chap, isn’t he?'”
After Thomas left the Shangri-La he and his wife spent three years in Yokosuka, Japan where he provided weather forecasts for the fleet. While there they became friends and neighbors of Lt. Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher, skipper of the Navy spy ship USS Pueblo. On Jan. 23, 1968 the Pueblo and its crew was captured by enemy gun ships off the coast of North Korea.
“After the skirmish the Navy tried to shift the blame for the incident to anyone it could,” Thomas said. “The Navy said Bucher gave up the ship without a fight. The commander of the Pueblo explained they were out-gunned by a Russian-made sub-chaser and other war ships plus a Mig-21 jet fighter.”
Furthermore, Bucher and his crew were trying to dispose of highly classified information and equipment before they became North Korean prisoners. They couldn’t fight the North Korean navy and air force and dispose of the classified information, too.
“Bucher and the Pueblo crew spent 11 months in a North Korean POW camp. They survived those 11 hard months,” Thomas said, “by writing Bible verses on toilet paper. Each crew member was asked by Bucher to write something from Scriptures on a sheet of toilet paper they could remember.
“They passed the verses out among themselves. They knew if they got caught passing Bible verses from cell-to-cell they would get more beatings from the North Koreans,” he said. “These Bible verses is what kept them going in prison during their worse days.”
Thomas and his wife were told the story about the Bible verses written on toilet paper from several members of the Pueblo crew after they were released from the North Korean POW camp.
Bucher stayed in the Navy after being release from the POW camp and retired as a full commander. The Pueblo is still held by the North Koreans. It’s a big tourist attraction that’s open to the pueblo in Pyongyang.
“During one our tours to Japan, I worked at the weather station at the Naval base at Yokosuka. I was executive officer at the station in charge of sending weather reports to the whole U.S. Pacific Fleet.
“However, decades earlier it was from this same building, atop the highest hill on the base on Dec. 7, 1941, the emperor’s officers broadcast a coded message to the Japanese fleet : ‘TORA, TORA, TORA!'”
That was the signal for Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto and his carriers to attack American’s Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor that Sunday morning 72 years ago.
When Thomas retired from the Navy in February 1971, after 20 years of military service, he was only 39 years-old.
“Up till then my wife, Cozette, and I had already given most of our time to the Navy and our country. Now it was time to give the Lord what we could give. We decided to become missionaries in the service of the Lord. In the last four decades we’ve brought the Gospel to 42 countries.
“Working with Arise & Shine Evangelistic Assn., Inc. we’ve built schools for kids in the Philippines. We’ve also built a couple of churches in a little town near Tokyo called Higashikurume,” Thomas said. “We’ve been to Honduras on 10 visits, but today it’s probably the most dangerous country in South or Central America. My life insurance company says my policy won’t be valid if I go back there again.
“We have a lot of dear friends in Japan and around he world. We’d love to go back and see them, but traveling any more is almost beyond our years,” he explained.
Since purchasing a five-acre tract southwest of Arcadia along County Road 769, home has gotten a little more homey for the aging couple. Two of their daughters and their families have moved to adjoining five acre tracts.
The Thomas’ will celebrate their 62nd wedding anniversary on June 23. They have five grown children: Danny, Karen, Robert, Susie and Jeff, 16 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren.
Looking back on his naval career and his decades of service to the Lord, 82-year-old Bob Thomas said with tears in his eyes, “After seeing how people in these other countries live, the United States of America is still the greatest country in the world. Regardless of what’s going on in this country, there’s still nothing like it!”
Name: Robert Faye Thomas
D.O.B: 16 April 1931
Hometown: Glendale, Calif.
Currently: Arcadia, Fla.
Entered Service: 15 May 1952
Discharged: 31 Jan 1971
Unit: Headquarters Naval Material Command
Commendations: Air Medal w/Gold Star, Korean Presidential Unit Citation, China Service Medal Extended, National Defense W/Star, Armed Forces Expeditionary, Vietnam Service w/Star, Navy Expeditionary, Expert Pistol Medal
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, June 17, 2013 and is republished with permission.
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