A story of war and Thanksgiving

Seventy-five years ago this month, November 1941, my father, Ray Troll, could have been on an Army troopship bound for the Philippines. Thankfully, for me, my brother and sisters, our children and the grandchildren we hope to have, he chose another path.

Aboard that troopship was my father's buddy from his hometown in upstate New York — Arnold Thompson. Both Thompson and my father were in the Infantry Reserves. It was obvious to them war was coming.  They were haunted by stories of the horrible hand-to-hand trench combat of the Great War. So, believing they could avoid the fate of an infantryman by volunteering before war started, they drove together to a recruitment center in July and joined the Army Air Corps. Within a few weeks they were squadron administrative officers with the 27th Bombardment Group stationed at the Savannah Army Air Base in Georgia.

[Keep Thanksgiving for grace and gratitude]

All that hot summer and fall of 1941 they mingled with adventurous young pilots. Eventually the glamour rubbed off on my father and he applied for pilot training. Thompson had no interest in flying. His eyesight was not good.

In October, Thompson and my father were ordered to ship out with the 27th to the Philippines. After raising the question about his pending application for pilot training, my father was offered the option to ship out or try his luck at flight school. He told me years later he was tempted by the lure of the tropics but opted to remain behind. The lure of flying was stronger.

The Japanese launched their invasion of the Philippines on Dec. 8, 1941.  Thompson ended up fighting as an infantryman, surrendering, surviving the Bataan Death March and the horrors of Cabanatuan Prison Camp, only to die three years later in the squalid hold of a Japanese freighter sunk by U.S. Navy dive bombers.

My father washed out of flight school but went on to become a navigator and was among the first crews to fly the B-29 into combat over Japan. He survived 26 missions and lived to the generous age of 85.

I think of these two men now, swept up in uncertain times, with their young lives still before them. I can imagine their Thanksgiving dinners 75 years ago, only weeks before the country fell into darkness and the world was utterly transformed.

[Surviving Engineer Hill: A vet recalls the last land battle on American soil]

Thanksgiving was actually moved in 1941 to Nov. 20 by President Franklin Roosevelt, allegedly to allow extra time for Christmas shopping – time, as events would unfold, Americans probably needed. In the Philippines they called the holiday Franksgiving. Thompson celebrated Thanksgiving in the officer's mess at Fort William McKinley outside Manila. It was a hot, sticky day. After dinner he was issued a mosquito net and a cot and quartered in a large room with many other officers in a building known as the Hostess House.

My father was in Georgia waiting for orders to flight school and serving in the meantime as an assistant mess officer in charge of overseeing Thanksgiving dinner at the local officer's mess hall.  He wrote home on Nov. 17:

"I have already seen the menu. It looks pretty good — roast turkey, giblet gravy, mashed potatoes, candied yams (sweet potatoes to you), two or three vegetables, cranberry sauce, mince and pumpkin pie, nuts, candy and cigarettes. I wish I could be with you for Thanksgiving, but as you can plainly see I'll not go hungry."

After the war, a street was named for Arnold Thompson in their hometown. If my father had chosen differently he too might have had a street in the town named for him. But, then, I imagine Arnold Thompson would have traded in that street for the choice my father made and the many more Thanksgivings granted to him.

Tim Troll lives in Anchorage.

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