The Thompsons are a family of heroes
Imagine raising 14 children on a farm in Carlton County. Now imagine nine of your kids going off to war at the same time.
That's precisely what happened to Finnish immigrants Mathilda and Jacob Thompson. Nine of their 11 sons served during the Second World War.
The eldest, Edward, was in the Merchant Marines. Eight more - Charles (Charlie), Jack, Reino (Ray), Arthur, William (Bill), Fred, Bernard and George - were drafted, one by one.
Theirs are believed to be the most sons from any U.S. family to serve in the same war.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt sent a personal letter to Mathilda Thompson in 1943.
Dear Mrs. Thompson,
I have seen an article telling about your ten* sons who are in the service or about to be in the service. I know how anxious you are about all of them, but I am sure you must be very proud of your boys. I sincerely hope that they will all be returned to you after the war safe and unharmed.
Very sincerely yours,
*The First Lady was slightly misinformed, although a younger brother, Henry, did sign up for the military in 1949 and he served in Korea.
The return address on the envelope said simply "The White House, Washington."
Fortunately for all involved, the story of the Thompson boys has a better ending than the five Sullivan brothers who were all killed in action on the same warship in 1942, or the Niland brothers, whose story was the inspiration for the film "Saving Private Ryan." All of the Thompson sons returned from the war alive, although George was injured in Okinawa and both Charlie and Ray contracted severe cases of malaria.
Of the 14 children - 11 sons and three daughters - only Charlie, George and Arthur are living still: Arthur in Hermantown, Charlie in Cromwell and George in Duluth. George and Charlie got together in Cromwell Tuesday to tell their story.
Charlie was drafted first, in November 1941, before the U.S. entered the war.
"It was supposed to be in for a year during peacetime," Charlie said. "Then Pearl Harbor happened and I was in for the duration. ... I don't know why I was picked first; it was the Aitkin draft board. I suppose they just put names in a hat. They couldn't take anyone unless you were between 18 and 26, I think."
Charlie, Ray and George were sent to the South Pacific, while Jack, Bill and Arthur served in Europe. Fred was stationed in the Aleutian Islands and Alaska (which wasn't a state yet). Bernard was just being called overseas when the war ended. Theodore was the only brother who didn't serve in the military at all.
Charlie nearly served in Europe, but fate intervened. On a troop train bound for the East Coast they learned their ship, the Normandy, had been sunk where it was moored in the New York Harbor. The train did a turnaround and Charlie and his fellow soldiers ended up shipping out of San Francisco to the war in the Pacific. Charlie served in the 37th (Ohio) Division 145 Infantry battalion.
In an interview with the Arrowhead Leader in 2002, sister Anne (nee Thompson) Bottila said she and her mother anxiously awaited every V-mailed letter, which would arrive with pieces missing where the military censors had cut it out.
"Every time we got a letter from one of them, I answered," Anne (now deceased) told the reporter. "If we didn't hear, we worried that something happened, but they couldn't write when they were fighting."
Charlie said he would write on whatever he could find and send it off without a stamp or anything.
"Sometimes I wrote on the C- ration box," he said. "It didn't matter, they'd mail it anyway. No envelopes or stamps, but they would send it."
Charlie's younger brother, George, was drafted in October 1943, three months after his 18th birthday.
Although none of the brothers served on the same ship, George tells an amazing story about running into Ray accidentally during the war.
"I was in the infantry at that time," said George, now 85. "Ray and I were in the same division [Seventh Division], but different battalions. I was in the 13th Engineer Battalion (Combat). Anyway, it was the Invasion of Leyte, in the Philippines, and he was with a group that was building a bridge over a river that that had been bombed out. And my bunch was going to the south end of the island for mop up.
"My buddy and I - Dick Story from Austin, Minn., we were always together - we had to wade across this river and carry supplies, ammunition, etc. We walked by this guy and his serial number had been stenciled on the back of his jacket. I said to Dick, 'That guy must be from our area, he has some of the same numbers.' Dick told me there must be millions [of soldiers from Minnesota and Iowa], but when we passed him again, I said, 'That guy looks familiar.'
At this point, George says, he took the protective wax paper off his address book and looked for the list of his brothers' serial numbers. The number was the same as his brother Ray's.
"So I tapped him on the shoulder and the first thing he says to me is, 'Who the [heck] are you?' I said, 'According to the serial numbers, I'm your brother George.'"
It was a happy, albeit short, reunion.
"We had about five minutes together," said George, adding that both he and his brother had changed in appearance during their time overseas. Ray was gaunt, George recalled, his skin yellowed from malaria.
"I was supposed to meet him three weeks later," he said. "I found his outfit, but they had already shipped him home."
George was the only brother seriously wounded in the war. It happened in Okinawa, when the truck in which he was riding hit a land mine. George was blown off the truck and his foot was badly injured.
"I refused a Purple Heart," George said, explaining that his buddy, Dick Story, had gotten a concussion and both ear drums blown out in the same explosion and Story was not offered a Purple Heart. "So I told them where they could put [that medal]," he said.
Charlie came home to Lawler, Minn., in 1944.
"The day I got the notice to come home, they were going to make a beachhead near Manila [in the Philippines]," he said. "They wanted me to go, said they'd promote me. I said, 'No, I'm going home. I'd sooner go home a PFC as die a sergeant.
"That's what happened, too, that gang got shot up."
In total, Charlie figures, he served 27 months overseas. Although he was discharged because he had enough "points," he was also quite ill with malaria.
"That malaria is a bugger," he said, describing how men would get fevers of 106 or 107 degrees and have their heads covered in ice while their bodies shook from the cold. They would also become delirious at times, unaware of the difference between visions induced by the mosquito-borne disease and reality. "I don't know how long I was sick."
To this day, neither Charlie nor George can give blood, because the disease is still there, hiding in plain sight. It never completely disappears.
Now 91, Charlie recently moved into Villa Vista Care Center in Cromwell with his beloved wife of 63 years, Vienna. He still speaks with a trace of a Finnish accent, a reminder that - even though he was born and raised in Minnesota - English was not his first language. He spoke only Finnish until he started school, a one-room schoolhouse in the Automba area.
"You think I have an accent, you should hear Arthur," he said with a chuckle.
The family moved from Automba to Lawler in 1930, to their grandparents' farm. The kids started at the one-room Berkland Country School, then moved to the two-room Kalavala School when it was built and finished up at the Lawler School. Most of the boys only went to school through the eighth grade.
Although times were tough when they were growing up, both men said the big family always had enough food. Somehow their mother found time to bake bread, make meals, milk the cows and put aside food for the winter. They had chickens so eggs were also a staple.
"She canned in two-quart bottles," Charlie said. "Everything ... berries, deer meat, veg, anything that needed to be canned."
"She made the best pickled beets," mused George with a smile on his face.
Within a few years of the war, both brothers were married and working at various jobs around the Northland. George met his wife in Duluth, then they moved to Two Harbors where he worked for the railroad. They had three daughters (Bonnie, Lori and Kathy) and one son, Jim.
After being laid off at the railroad, George ultimately ended up as chief engineer for Tasty Bread, a job he held for 25 years. He and his wife retired within 15 days of each other and divided their retirement time between Duluth/Superior and Florida until she passed away in 1996.
Charlie and Vienna built a home in Esko. After running the Toonerville Bar in McGregor for a while, he got a job at a plumbing wholesale house where he worked for 35 years. Vienna worked at many places, including Chun King and Northwestern Wiping Cloth Company, among others.
When asked if they have any advice for younger generations, George doesn't hesitate.
"Don't go to war," he said.