Meet our Veterans:
Tommy Thompson was born on November 4, 1944. He was born in Port Arthur, Texas. He had two brothers, Jon Bob and Henry and one sister, Elizabeth. Jon Bob was in the Air Force during Korea and Henry flew B-25’s During WW2. His dad, Henry Conway Thompson, worked in the oil business at Texaco, moved to Canton and became Justice of the Peace and worked for the Hilliard’s. His dad was the tool keeper in the refinery. Ara, his mother was a housewife.
“I moved to Canton on January 7th, 1951, I was six years old. My dad retired from Texaco. My mother was raised in Martins Mill and she had a lot of family there. I hunted mostly squirrel and fished as a young boy. In the summer I worked on the farm picking vegetables and hauling watermelons. As I got older I worked in the grocery store. I worked for Heard Texaco in Canton on the square.
I went to Canton High School and met Cary Hilliard in elementary school. Cary is former mayor and sits on the Veterans Memorial Board.” They grew up together as young boys. “He and I duck hunted quite a bit near Kickapoo Creek off of 2909. I played basketball and football at Canton Junior High School. In High School I played both those sports and also ran track. I lettered in all three sports. I liked football the most and was quarterback on the team,” said Tommy.
“Cary and I were out on his farm and he drove a Volkswagen at the time. It had rained about 12 inches and we had a couple of beers. It was cold. There was a place on his farm called Broadneck Bottom. Cary said, “ let’s drive down to Broadneck and see what it looks like.” We came on top of the hill and shined down and all we saw was water. There were about three or four bridges on Saline Creek. Cary said, “I think we can make it.” We got to the first bridge and water was all around us. The headlights went underwater and sort of turned brown and popped back up. Cary said, “ Ah, we got it made now.” We got to looking around and we were floating. The fence posts were just outside the windows,” he laughed. “We were floating and he still had the gas pedal pushed.” Cary yelled out, “ Oh my God,” and he let off the gas pedal and the water starting sucking up into the tailpipes. We were bobbing up and down like a cork. We were ok until we opened the doors and it sunk. The water was up to our cheek and raging thru. Why we didn’t drown I have no idea. We walked back up the hill, soaked and freezing to death. We walked up to the farm to go get the tractor. We got all the chain and rope we could find and went back to our location where we got out. We shined the light out and the Volkswagen was gone. Cary was getting nervous at this time. We go up to a farmer’s house and knock on the door. This was about 10:30 at night. We told him we needed a ride to town. We rode in the back of his pickup truck and it was really cold. We got near Cary’s house and I jumped out of the truck. I was not going to go to his house with him. Another good friend of ours John Turner gave me a ride back to my house. Cary got back home and woke his sister up and said we need to wake up dad and tell him I need to talk to him. His dad asked, “ what’s the matter son?” and Cary said, “Well I’m stuck.” His dad replied, “stuck, that’s no problem. We will just take the jeep out there and pull that thing out.” Cary never said a word. They drove up the hill and shined there light down on the creek. Looking around, Cary’s dad asked, “Cary, where’s the Volkswagen?” Cary pointed down and his dad yelled, “I thought you told me it was stuck?” They finally got it out and it was totaled.
“That next spring I joined the Navy and I was talking with his dad one day and he asked me what I was going to do in the Navy. I said I was going to be a sonar man and I was going to be looking for submarines. He laughed and said, “Well if I had known that I would have allowed you to go in the submarine business, you already got the experience.” We both laughed.
Went into the Military
“I volunteered for the military. My brother, Jon Bob who was in the Air Force, had a lot of influence on me. I was in High School study hall and I was reading a book about the Navy and how I could see the world thru a porthole. So, that is what I decided to do. I joined a week before I graduated. I signed up for four years in Tyler, Texas.
I went to boot camp in San Diego, California in 1963. At the time I was there we had an outbreak of spina meningitis. Therefore, we were on an eight-week schedule versus a twelve week in Boot. I was signed up as a seaman recruit. However, I thought I had signed up as an airman recruit. I wanted to be an aviation air controlman. I went before the board and they told me, “it can’t happen.” I told them that is what I signed up for. I was tested and I came back where I was highly tested in radio, radar, sonar and electronics. I told them to go ahead and pick one. I told them since I couldn’t be an airman recruit I would just as soon be a boatswain mate.
I didn’t even know what a boatswain mate was. He said, “ok we are going to put you down for sonar.” I didn’t even know what sonar was. I finally said, that is fine with me, let’s get on with the program. I got my orders and went to fleet sonar school.
I went from San Diego to Key West, Florida. Now, mind you they had a sonar school in San Diego but instead they sent me plum across the United States to sonar school in Key West. That was ok with me.
I started doing some research on sonar and found out it stood for sound, navigation and ranging. All we did was look for submarines. Transmitting the sound and getting the echo back. It was a Class A school and lasted nine months. It was the first time I got to go out on a ship. They would bring these ships into Key West and we would get on them and go out to sea and do training. It was a hard school but I enjoyed going out and getting the “hands on” experience on the ships. Not only did we operate the equipment but we also maintained it and repaired it. We fixed the problems. I eventually became lead sonar man on the ship.
There was not much to do on Key West but I became good at nine ball. I remember spending Christmas of 1963 on the beach, sunning and drinking a cold beer. We did have a hurricane alert while I was there. I don’t remember which one it was.
My next assignment was Norfolk, Virginia. I was assigned to the USS Barney, a guided missile destroyer. It was an ASW, an anti-submarine warship.
We had been in the Mediterranean for about six months and were on our way home. I was on watch. I got this contact and reported it. I was tracking it and feeding the information into a computer.
The computer said it was a submarine. I made my report to the bridge. We tracked it and tried to surface it. We had an underwater telephone called “Gertrude.” We called to the sub to try to get them to acknowledge. We tracked that sub for about eight hours.
He played games with us and we played games with them. The sub never did acknowledge us. We assumed it was a Russian sub. The captain finally called it off saying we were due back in Norfolk at a certain day and time. It made us mad as sonar men. Back then if you surfaced a Russian submarine each sonar man would get a case of whiskey,” and Tommy started laughing saying we were still glad to get back after six months in the Med.
That was our second cruise. The first one was in the fall of 1964. My wife’s name was Alexandra, but we called her Sandy.
On the fourth of July in 1964 we escorted the USS Independence (CVA-62 Aircraft Carrier). We escorted her into New York City for the World’s Fair. I met Sandy there. There were five of us from Texas and we went on shore. We stopped into the “Red Garter Bar.” We all sat down at a table and across the room from us were about five girls. One of my buddies got up and went to the restroom and never came back. I ended up sitting there by myself and all the guys had gotten up and went to the bathroom but again never came back. I looked across the room and my friends were all sitting with those girls. I moved over with them and that is when I met my wife. We got married in 1966. We will be married 54 years this May. She worked for Mass Mutual Insurance and was from Massachusetts.
I did a NATO cruise in September of 1964. We operated with ships from the NATO nations. We did that for about two months. We operated up near the Arctic Circle and I became a “Blue nose.” Same thing as before we played tic tac with the Russians. On a convoy you have an outer circle where your radar screen is around the main body. We would rotate every hour. We would stay in the rear for the carrier, mainly as a lifeguard. We woke up one morning and there was a Russian destroyer in formation with us.
We had about 12 or 13 ships in the formation. They may have a refer or refrigeration ship, an aircraft cruiser and maybe a light cruiser. The Russian ship got in behind us. The ship asked for permission to come alongside of us and get fuel. The ships request was denied. They started cutting across our bow and really making it difficult. We finally told them to stop the harassment or we would fire a shot across their bow. They peeled off and went over the horizon. The Russian fleet was always looking for information. We shut off all our electronic devices. They are looking for all your radio frequencies or any of the ship’s electronic frequencies.
Many times, we would run across a Russian trawler and it would have antennas all over it. They weren’t fishing. They were fishing for information,” Tommy said shaking his head.
“I made a second Med Cruise in 1965 and was gone another seven or eight months.
We spent a lot of times in the Virgin Islands around San Juan, Puerto Rico. We had “tartar” missiles, surface to air missiles for air defense.
The Navy had a base in Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico. We did a lot of practice there with the missiles. We were shooting drones out of the sky under our crazy Captain’s orders.” He said, “if we were going to practice, we might as well hit our targets.” “He got reprimanded for that action. Those drones were pretty expensive.
We went twice to Guantanamo Bay. We had our ORI’s or Operational Readiness Inspections. We got checked out on radar, sonar and missile firings. This is where all your personal and ship are rated for operational readiness. This was right after the Bay of Pigs, so there was still some tension in the area. They still had land mines in the waters. There were certain beaches you could and couldn’t go to. Guards located on the fences. It was interesting times.”
Aboard the USS Conyngham
In February 1967, the USS Barney was deployed to Vietnam. “At the time I only had three months left in the Navy and did not go. Today, I wish I had. I was transferred to the USS Conyngham, (DDG-17). I was Chief Master at Arms, an E-5 for my last three months of my military career. If I had extended, I would have been up for E-6 in six-months. I spent four years I the Navy. I wanted to go to school when I got out of the military and I did.
The biggest challenge for me was my excursions and trying to maintain a relationship from Norfolk, Virginia and Springfield, Massachusetts. Every time I went up there I was going out of bounds,”Tommy said looking back.
“The NATO cruise in the North Atlantic was probably my favorite times where I saw so much of the North Atlantic, icebergs and the whales and some great ports. The seas got pretty rough in that part of the world, especially if you are on a “tin can destroyer.” The sonar is useless in that type of weather because there is so much noise going on with the wave action. We just shut down and followed that damn aircraft carrier around.”
“The Independence did not go anywhere without the Barney,” Tommy laughed. “The only way you got around the ship was on your hands and knees. We would come plum out of the water and slam down hard on the ocean. You strapped yourself into your bunks. We ate a lot of crackers and “C” rations.
We did have to take on fuel during these huge waves all around us. We got fueled from the Independence. It got so bad they just took the axes and cut the fuel lines and fuel was still pumping. The first wave came along and washed it all away. The Captain of the ship announced all personal involved with that last operation who were on topside meet down in sickbay. So, we all met down in sickbay. They brought out all the whiskey for medicinal purposes.” He said, “I think this qualifies for medicinal purposes.” We all agreed.
We had one guy as soon as we got six miles out of Norfolk heading to the North Atlantic, he got seasick. Antwerp, Belgium was one of the best ports we ever hit. This sailor went to see a specialist while we were in port. We spent about three or four days there. He came back and they said he was chronic seasickness and recommended he not be on the ship. He said, “nope, I signed up to be a sailor and I am going to be a sailor.” When he got back, he never got sick another day.
The Mediterranean cruises included Italy, Spain, France, Sicily, Malta and Istanbul, Turkey. In Turkey we had to anchor out in the channel.
We looked out and saw all this dust flying. We got over to the dock and asked where all the dirt was coming from. We walked over and saw a camel fight. The ring was the people around the camels. Those camels are mean and they stink too,” he laughed.
“We were supposed to port in Beirut, Lebanon but one of the sailors got homesick so he poured sugar into our reduction gears which put the ship out of action. We ended staying in Naples, Italy for a while until they got the parts in to repair the ship. We never made it to the Middle East. They did catch the guy who put the ship out of action, though,” Tommy said.
“I gained a lot of values in the Navy. I lived a somewhat of a sheltered world growing up in East Texas. We all grew up during the Jim Crowe era and now I was thrown in this big melting pot of all different nationalities and religions. Until I left Canton, Texas I had never met a Catholic. I learned to depend on the guy next to me. I learned not to see color or religions.
The best food I liked was steak and eggs. When you were at sea you did not get a lot of fresh food, most was frozen. I was on watch the night before I came down the mess hall and told the cook I sure would like some steak and eggs. I came down to the galley and sure enough there was steak and eggs for breakfast. It was the best meal I ever had. The worst food was “SOS”, some called it shit on shingles. The roast beef was cut so thin you could read thru it. I ate it, but didn’t like it,” said Tommy
Moved to Beaumont, Texas
“I moved to Beaumont Texas when I got out of the service. I had a half-brother who lived there. I attended Lamar University. I studied Industrial Electronics and Electricity. I was looking to get into the electrical repair type of career. When I graduated, I went to work for Gulf States Utilities for about two years. I went to work for them as a relay mechanic maintaining their relay systems on these high voltage transmission lines. I got interested in the communications field. That included the radio communications and the microwave systems. To go in that field, I needed a license. At the time my wife was working for Sun Oil Company. They shut down that office and moved to Houston. In 1969 we moved to Houston. I got my FCC (Federal Communications Commission) license so I could adjust transmitters and frequencies. It was all regulated. So, I went down and applied to Exxon and applied for a job as a communications technician. I worked for Exxon in their pipeline for about two years. They wanted me to transfer to Hattiesburg, Mississippi and I told them I wasn’t interested.
I went back home and saw a job in the newspaper for a communications technician for ARCO Pipeline. I got the job in June of 1973. ARCO eventually sold to FINA Oil and Chemical Company. I stayed with them until I retired in 2006. I maintained their pipeline communications, pump stations and all their shutdown devices and radio equipment. I live in Huntsville now but come back to Canton about every six months or so.
On my bucket list I would like to go fishing in Alaska. I see the shows on TV a lot. My brother went and he had a good experience. He loved to fish for Flounder on the coast and wanted to go catch Halibut in Alaska. He wanted to tell everyone he caught the world’s largest Flounder. He caught a Halibut and was reeling it in. A seal grabbed the Halibut and ate half of it before he got it in. So much for bragging rights.
I would also like to visit Pearl Harbor. I would love to see the USS Arizona. That would be number one on my bucket list.
I had fun and met a lot of good friends in the Navy. I did go to a reunion once and hadn’t seen them in 40 years. Some of them I recognized and some not.
BUT, once I heard their voice, I would say that is Smitty from Kentucky. Their voice always gave them away. The faces have changed but not their voices. We had the reunion aboard a modern Guided Missile Destroyer in Norfolk, Va. In 1990 the USS Barney was decommissioned. It was the very first ship to successfully launch a surface-to-surface missile.
A Tomahawk cruise missile. We wanted to save her. We tried to make a memorial out of her and had a city but it never happened,” he said.
Our conversation moved to Navy Ship Memorials around the country. The Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile, Alabama came up.
There is a monument for the USS Alabama and the USS Drum in Mobile, Alabama. My wife and I visited the WW2 Destroyer last year. We checked out all the gun mounts on the exterior and took a lengthy tour throughout the ship.
Next to the USS Alabama is the USS DRUM, a WW2 submarine. If you are ever traveling near the Gulf Coast of Alabama, I highly recommend both tours. It was the first time I had ever been inside a submarine and it was quite an experience.
Sitting in her cradle beside Mobile Bay is the National Historic Landmark WWII submarine USS DRUM (SS-228). The DRUM is the oldest American submarine on public display. She had a 72-member crew and made many missions during the war.
USS DRUM was donated to the USS ALABAMA Battleship Commission on April 14, 1969 and was brought to Mobile to join the USS ALABAMA at Battleship Memorial Park as a war memorial and museum. She was opened to the public for tours on July 4, 1969.
Tommy, thank you for your service to our country while serving in the United States Navy.
NOTE: Meet other Veterans from Van Zandt County by going to the top at www.vzcm webpage and click MEET OUR VETERANS and scroll down to the (5) branches of services and the veterans last name first and click to read.
“Every Veteran has a story to tell.” Phil Smith
GOD BLESS OUR VETERANS AND GOD BLESS AMERICA
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