ELMHURST, Ill. –Don Thomas, a Park Place Elmhurst resident for the past two years, always had a spirit of adventure.
“He was always taking trips,” Mavis, his wife of 45 years, says.
Don has stories of hitchhiking across the country, of a championship high school basketball season, and life growing up in Minnesota. He speaks like an expert story teller, recounting 95 years of life in detail.
But his most compelling story is of his time in World War II, where his adventurous spirit likely spared his life, as he escaped Prisoner of War camp twice.
Don never planned to join the military. “I had friends who had joined the National Guard, and they wanted me to come, too. But I had my own plans.”
Those plans included studying Chemical Engineering at the University of Minnesota. Don, a bright and capable student, aced every test that he took. But his spirit of adventure kept him out of class, and finally, his professor sat him down.
“I had friends who had joined the National Guard, and they wanted me to come, too. But I had my own plans,” Park Place Elmhurst resident remembers.
“He told me that I’d missed too many classes, and too many tests. He had no choice but to fail me. He was a good man, and he wanted to help me–he didn’t want that on my permanent academic record.”
And so Don Thomas joined the military in November of 1940 and entered into active service in February, 1941. He had no way of knowing about the attack on Pearl Harbor that would occur less than a year later, and that everything in his life would change.
He was out on a weekend pass, hitchhiking back to base, when he and the driver heard on the radio that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
“We looked at each other. We didn’t even know where Pearl Harbor was.”
When Don got back to camp, everything was going full speed. No one was talking about where the unit might be sent, but there were rumors of Iceland. About 10 days after Pearl Harbor, his unit was sent on a long trek, first by train, then by boat, to Belfast.
“We were the first troop ship to cross the Atlantic for World War II,” he says.
“We were the first troop ship to cross the Atlantic for World War II,” Park Place Elmhurst resident says.
Don saw some of the deadliest campaigns. He fought in the Tunisian campaign, a campaign eventually won by the Allies, but only after tremendous loss of life. Don survived and was awarded his first Purple Heart, but still has vivid memories of the horrors of that day.
Don went on to fight in several successful campaigns, particularly in Italy. But on a reconnaissance mission near Anzio in January of 1944, a landmine exploded under the jeep he was in, killing all the other passengers and knocking him unconscious. He awoke to a group of German infantrymen pointing guns at him.
The Germans took Don prisoner, marching him through the streets of Rome to show the Italians that the Germans were well in control of the war. He then went to POW camp in Leipzig. He and another friend escaped by walking away during a work assignment in the woods, and with help from a Polish farmer who helped hide them in the hay in his barn.
The Germans captured Don and made an example of him, pistol-whipping him and knocking out his front teeth.
However, when he was re-captured shortly after his escape, the Germans made an example of him, pistol-whipping him and knocking out his front teeth, then throwing him in solitary confinement. He was later marched to a new camp in freezing conditions, many of his companions dying on the road.
But Don’s spirit and passion persevered. After enduring many other hardships and dire circumstances, Don made another escape. A small compass, hidden by the Red Cross in a shaving brush at the work camps, helped him find his way back to safety.
Don eventually received his second Purple Heart and Honorable Discharge from the Army. He went back to the University of Minnesota and graduated Magna Cum Laude with degrees in both Chemical Engineering and Business Administration. Don has a history of successful business endeavors in Louisiana, Minnesota, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.; as well as internationally in India and Jerusalem. He has also been active in his local church and is a member of Gideons International (his wife Mavis is also a member of the Gideon’s Auxiliary).
Now Don and Mavis enjoy their retirement at Park Place, warmly welcoming guests who want to hear Don’s tales and enjoy Mavis’s hospitality.
We are so thankful to be a part of Don and Mavis’s story, and look forward to hearing more stories from our residents at Park Place of Elmhurst.
To learn more about Park Place of Elmhurst, go to www.ParkPlaceElmhurst.com.