PARKESBURG — Almost 70 years after the end of World War II, a highly-decorated U.S. Marine finally got the ribbon he and his unit earned.
Private First Class Jesse Thomas, 87, of Cochranville stood before a room packed with fellow veterans at the Parkesburg VFW on Sunday and received the Presidential Unit Citation issued to him by President Harry Truman in 1945.
Thomas, who was involved in heavy combat and wounded three times, is also the only surviving member of the team that raised the United States flag on Okinawa in southern Japan when the war ended. He has two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star as well, but until this weekend lacked the citation that he either never got or lost.
When he was asked how he found out he was supposed to get the colorful ribbon with horizontal stripes, he said he was certainly not called to the White House, nor did the president come to Japan to present it. “He didn’t want to be where I was,” he said.
Thomas, a lifelong Cochranville resident, went to Philadelphia and joined the Marines when he was 17. He was returned to duty shortly after each of the wounds he received during the war. “They patched me up and put me back in the line every time,” he said.
When the end of the war was declared, he was one of four members of the 6th Marine Divison there chosen to plant the U.S. flag on a hill. The event is recalled on a painted that was on display at the VFW on Sunday.
How did he feel? “I was happy. It was the end of the war,” he said.
When he returned to the U.S. afterward, he went to work at General Motors for 45 years and is now retired.
Speakers, one after the other, praised Thomas and his service to the country.
Current Marine David Martinz, who pinned the ribbon to Thomas’s lapel said, “The things you did paved the way for others.”
State Rep. John Lawrence, R-13th, of Kemblesville presented him with a proclamation from the state House of Representatives.
“I don’t feel worthy to present the citation to you. ...Imagine you decide to save your country when you are just out of high school and you go to some rock that people are fighting over. You raised the flag of your nation on that rock,” he said.
Lawrence added, “We’re here to serve an entire generation of men and women who served their country.”
Parkesburg Mayor John Hagen declared March 2 to be Jesse Thomas Day in the borough. “There is a debt of perpetuity that everyone owes you,” he said.
Post Commander Bob McMinn gave Thomas a citation as well, declaring him a lifetime member of the local VFW.
The ceremony and ribbon presentation came about after an event that occurred about four years ago.
U.S. Army veteran, military historian and tailor Vincent Santucci designed and made a military uniform for Thomas to replace the one he had lost. In the process of discussing the ribbons Thomas had saved and been awarded, Santucci realized that the old Marine didn’t have the very prestigious Presidential Unit Citation to complement the other awards.
It was then that Santucci undertook to remedy that problem. He said he did a lot of investigation and searching on the Internet and finally came up with a valid ribbon. After he obtained it, they planned for Thomas’s presentation.
He recounted his conversations with Thomas as he sought information about the award.
“Jesse told me it rained all day and poured at night. The men had to look out for the enemy from the foxholes. Jesse told me the grenades he had were ‘the best,’” Santucci said.
Thomas’s son Gerald was also at the ceremony and spoke of growing up with his father. “He’s tough and he knows right from wrong. You learn respect and you learn to serve your country, “ he said.