Donn Thompson’s 100-year-old frame snapped to attention in the cold afternoon air Friday outside his home at the Rockwood South Hill retirement community, his hand extended in the formal military salute of a Marine Corps veteran.
Beneath that outward show of military decorum, performed in response to a procession that included a World War II era jeep and a color guard salute, lies memories of a conflict that has fewer and fewer firsthand witnesses as time passes.
“War is not very kind, remember that,” Thompson, who turned 100 Friday, said. “And most people wouldn’t be able to understand anything I told them.”
As a private first class in the Marines, Thompson participated in five assault landings in the Pacific Theater during World War II, said his son, Jim Thompson. Like many of his generation, he didn’t talk about the war with his children, but drips and drabs of information – and spontaneous bursts of emotion – would bubble out over the years.
On his first assault, the doors opened and the man next to him was immediately struck by gunfire and killed, Jim Thompson recalled his father telling him. He would later ask to see the man’s wallet when he was being carried away for burial, and inside were pictures of the man’s wife and two children.
“He would say, ‘I can still see those images in my head,’ ” Jim Thompson said.
He was in the Pacific when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading to Japan’s surrender in World War II. In an interview in 1995, Thompson said he remembered the white flags dotting the Japanese hills as American forces arrived in August 1945.
“Chills ran up and down my spine,” Thompson recalled then. “I thought: ‘Man, if we’d invaded here, we would have been cut to ribbons.’ ”
Donn Thompson is a member of an increasingly exclusive club. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated in September that of the 16 million Americans who served during World War II, fewer than 168,000 remained alive last year. That number was down from roughly 240,000 the year before.
Several generations and friends at Rockwood and beyond stopped Friday afternoon to share a handshake or a word of congratulations for Thompson, a Lewis and Clark High School alumnus who enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1943 before finishing college. At his side was his wife of 75 years, Dude, (pronounced Dew-dee).
“They’ve always called each other ‘love bugs,’ ” Jim Thompson said.
Dude Thompson stood with her husband as the Melvin M. Smith Detachment of the Marine Corps League and active members of the military presented the colors, along with proclamations and challenge coins to her husband.
“It’s a little emotional,” Dude Thompson said. “I tried to hold back tears, and I did.”
Joining the celebration were former neighbors Darrell and Colleen Kuhn, who’ve been attending birthday celebrations for the couple for years.
“We’ve stayed friends for 20-plus years,” Colleen Kuhn said. “We still consider them neighbors.”
“They were good neighbors, good mentors, good friends,” Darrell Kuhn said. “The world needs more people like them, especially today.”
Among the gifts that Donn Thompson received Friday were 178 cards of well wishes, sent from 38 states, collected by local chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The local chapter of the Children of the American Revolution also collected cards for Thompson.
Donn Thompson credited his “good genes” for his longevity. His “dear dad” lived to 97, and died of a heart attack.
“God bless you, Dad, I’m still here,” Thompson said Friday, lifting his eyes to the sky over a celebratory glass of wine.
Later, after the procession had passed and the proclamations had been read, Thompson once again lifted his hand to his forehead, addressing the men and women in uniform in front of him.
“I salute you,” he said.