MORGAN CITY — Ralph “Pappy” Thomas is one of the lucky ones.
He did not return to America during or after World War II in a casket, like many other servicemen.
Instead, he returned relatively unharmed, save for the shrapnel still lodged in his right foot from his last overseas mission.
But don’t be fooled. Thomas, 89, didn’t have it easy. He dodged death and shell fire on his last mission and also abandoned a sinking ship.
And no, Thomas was not a member of the U.S. Army. He wasn’t a member of the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Air Force, either.
Instead, he proudly served in World War II as a carpenter’s mate, along with 171,000 others, in the U.S. Coast Guard.
“Yeah, that non-combative outfit,” Thomas says sarcastically of the Coast Guard. “You ever heard of that? That’s what the Marines and the Army always called the Coast Guard, ‘the non-combative outfit.’ I (have) done a little combatin’.”
In 1941, Thomas enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard at age 21 and completed boot camp at Algiers Navy base near New Orleans before he was shipped to Houma where he literally stayed in jail — the Coast Guard had no barracks at the time, and they had an agreement with the Houma police to lodge in the jail.
A week after arriving in Houma, Thomas was taken by a Coast Guard vessel — a shrimp boat called “King Fish” — to Morgan City, where he was stationed at the Red Star Garage on Front Street in Morgan City.
Soon, though, Thomas decided he wanted to fight overseas, so he went through more training in Texas and was assigned to the LCI(L) 85, a 158-foot, 6-inch vessel. These Landing Craft Infantry Large vessels transported troops to land where they would engage in combat.
Thomas and the crew headed for Morocco, Africa.
After completing maneuvers there and battling in multiple air raids, they dropped off soldiers in Sicily and Salerno, Italy, before moving on to England to prepare for the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion at Normandy, France.
During his time on the LCI(L) 85, Thomas manned an anti-aircraft 20-millimeter gun on the ship’s stern during air raids and another gun on the ship’s bow during landings. During other times, he did whatever work was needed around the ship, and when the vessel was in port, he would use his carpentry skills to make things.
While he never fired his gun during a landing, he said he did multiple times during air raids, which mostly occurred when the LCI(L) 85 was in port.
“We had them quite often,” he said of the aerial attacks.
As far as he knows, he never shot down any planes.
“But when you get fire coming up with tracers (bullets) from all directions, you don’t know which one hit one,” Thomas says. “You could say, ‘I got that one or I got this one or I got those other two.’ You never know because you got tracer bullets (all over). It almost lights up the sky at night when you got one.”
While his first two missions went relatively smoothly, his third one was far from it.
“When we went in, we went on what was known as …” Thomas says, stopping as he tries to recall the name. “Aww, shucks, I lost it.
“Memory ain’t like it used to be,” he says after pausing for a few more seconds.
Then suddenly, moments later, it comes to him. “Oh … Easy Dog Red.”
June 6, 1944
Thomas and the rest of his crew leave the transport area on this morning, as part of a group of 24 LCI(L)s, known as Flotilla Ten, headed for Easy Dog Red — an area of Omaha Beach on the shores of Normandy.
The 29-member crew, also carrying 200 soldiers, are part of a mission known as Operation Neptune that is targeting the Germans.
Thomas is nestled in the No. 1 anti-aircraft gun on the bow with three other crew members, and as soon as the ship hits the shore, one of the men spots a German mine, which subsequently hits the ship.
German 88-millimeter cannon and machine gun fire follow.
“Men were hit and men were mutilated,” Lt. J.G. Coit Hendley of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, who was the ship’s commanding officer, says in a U.S. military account of the attack.
One particular 88-millimeter cannon shot the bow and makes its way through seven steel bulkheads before exploding in the crew’s quarters.
“Believe me, brother, it exploded right where my bunk was,” Thomas said earlier this week, sitting in the recliner at his Florence Street home where he has lived for more than 60 years. “I slept in the middle bunk. I’m glad I … wasn’t in bed that day.”
Two officers are wounded and the vessel’s radio man loses a leg as a result of the cannon.
Meanwhile, about 50 troops escape a ramp and head for shore before a shell blows the ramp off.
Small boats assisting the Allied forces help the soldiers on the vessel make it ashore.
In all, approximately 25 shells hit the boat.
After the attacks begin, the wounded ship, on fire and taking on water, moves offshore
The fire is put out but water kept coming onboard.
Around noon, the injured and dead from the now listing ship are placed onboard another Coast Guard vessel, the Samuel Chase.
The LCI(L) 85 is tied to a navy tug, which attempts to pump the water out of it. Thomas moves in the depths of the LCI(L) 85 and clears debris so the pumps can try to rid the boat of the water it is taking on.
However, Thomas hears the pumps stop, he emerges on the deck and realizes all other members of the LCI(L) have boarded the tug, he said during a 1994 interview with The Daily Review.
He is the last one to leave the sinking ship, which finally was sucked under by the English Channel at approximately 2:30 p.m., about 10 miles from the French coast.
The ship’s personnel are saved. However, 15 soldiers died and 40 of the ship’s occupants were wounded.
Four other LCI(L)s are sunk by the Germans during the attack, too.
Thomas eventually returns to England before traveling to Scotland and finally back to the U.S.
He completes his service in New Orleans at the Coast Guard repair base before he receives an honorable discharge.
History and memories
During World War II, Coast Guard units were in every war zone and ferried troops at all invasions.
The Coast Guard lost 28 vessels and 1,050 lives, but the Coast Guard rescued more than 2,400 survivors of submarine attacks, sank 12 enemy submarines and saved nearly 1,500 soldiers and sailors from drowning during the Normandy invasion.
Following his service, Thomas returned to Morgan City, where he almost immediately married the former Ruth Taylor.
They built the house on Florence Street where he still lives with his wife of the past 17 years, Dee (Ruth passed away in 1990).
Upon his return, he spent his working career as a truck driver hauling mostly oil field equipment.
While he is originally from Loco, Okla., and was raised northwest of Lubbock, Texas, he has spent most of his life in Morgan City.
“Of course, I’ve been here so long I’m about halfway a native,” he quips.
Since he retired from the truck driving industry, he and Dee have been working for four south Louisiana dealerships fetching cars for customers from other dealerships that may not be available at their local dealership.
And even on the cusp of his 90th birthday which will be Nov. 19, Thomas still gets behind the wheel.
He proudly boasts that he has only had one chargeable accident and two tickets, which were received 39 years apart.
Thomas estimated that he has driven approximately 1.5 million miles in his lifetime.
“I started driving trucks when I was 12 years old,” he says. “I drove trucks when (Ford) Model Ts were famous.”
It’s just some of the memories that come with nearly 90 years of life, including World War II.