Wilmette man receives Congressional Gold Medal
Updated: October 7, 2012 6:12AM
Wilmette — It was 1945. William Thomas was 18, and fresh from eight weeks of Marine Corps boot camp at Montford Point, North Carolina, passing by train through the Deep South en route to Guam with his fellow boot camp graduates.
“We made a stop in Mississippi and I remember our white officers stood on the steps of the train and told us not to look out,” the retired Wilmette pathologist said Wednesday. “Well I did, and I looked up a hill and saw a bunch of guys with rifles looking to kill us.
“I remember thinking that I might end up dying, so that those guys could have the freedom to try to kill me.”
Thomas smiled slightly as he recounted the grim anecdote. The neighbors and guests gathered around him in his living room chair could smile too.
After all, the rifle-toting men on that long-ago hill were faint and faceless memories. Dr. William Thomas — retired United States Marine and respected member of his community — had just received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor given by the United States Congress, for helping to change Marine history.
Thomas, 86 is one of roughly 400 remaining Marines to have trained at Montford Point, which served as a segregated training ground for the first African-Americans to enter the Corps. Between 1942 and 1949 close to 20,000 young men chose to do so, enduring not only the Corps’ legendarily tough training, but the indignity of segregation and abuse by officers and fellow Marines who often hated them.
Thomas encountered some of that abuse first hand; he praised two of the men who trained him as fine officers, but remembered a third, “a big guy, from Mississippi as it happens, who despised us.”
“It was a good experience. It helped me mature,” he said matter-of-factly on Wednesday.
After mustering out in 1946, he went to Boston Medical School and became a doctor. He moved to Detroit where he met Elizabeth, the young nurse who would become his wife and move with him to Chicago.
He became a pathologist at Mt. Sinai Hospital, moved with Elizabeth to Wilmette and raised three sons.
Thomas’ son John continued the family’s military tradition as a Marines, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan until his 2009 retirement as a lieutenant colonel.
It was John who signed up his father with the Montford Point Marine Association and helped ensure that he would be included when Gen. James F. Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, presented the medal to surviving Montford Marines last June. He also helped arrange the home presentation, after illness prevented his father from attending the official ceremony in Washington last June.
“He was pretty resistant about having a big fuss made,” Thomas said Wednesday. “He didn’t want a lot of publicity.
“But this is not just about him. It’s about his generation, and I think it’s important for the community to know who they have living among them.”