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THACH WEAVEThe Life of Jimmie Thach
By STEVE EWING
Naval Institute PressCopyright © 2004 Steve Ewing
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Razorback Goes to Sea
World War II survivor accounts from both the United States and Japan reveal that many combatants gave little or no thought to the person in their gun sights, and even less thought to the name of their adversary. Had there been a requirement that they know their opponents' names before fighting, an aerial battle might have ended before John Smith Thach could explain why he was known by several names. He did not use John, except when he was required to officially write his name as recorded on his birth certificate. From his earliest days, he was known as Jack, the name used by his family throughout his life. But at age eighteen, he had the name Jimmie thrust upon him, and that was the name that stuck.
During World War II, a number of Japanese pilots and ship gunners had an opportunity to end the life of John S. (Jack or Jimmie) Thach. But Jack almost ended his life at age two when he mistook some rat poison for cookies while on a visit to his grandparent's farm in Tennessee. Discovering the absent child in the attic happily devouring the deadly "cookies," the family quickly poured mustard water down his throat to induce vomiting. In an effort to stop the distasteful treatment, the struggling child demonstrated the quick thinking evident in his future roles as fighter pilot and diplomatic flag officer: he suggested that the family not waste all the mustard on him but save some for everyone else.
Born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, on 19 April 1905, Jack was the third of four children born to James Harmon and Jo Bocage Smith Thach. James Harmon Jr. (born 13 December 1900) was the Thach family's eldest child, followed by Josephine, Jack, and Frances. Jack's father was a school principal when he met the future Mrs. Thach, also a teacher. Mr. Thach's protracted presence in her classroom was the first indication he was interested in more than the world of education. In 1911, the household moved from Pine Bluff to Fordyce, the presence of Jack's maternal grandmother being a bonus to his education. With a standing invitation for afternoon tea, Jack's grandmother, Etta Bocage Smith, entertained him and his playmate guests with stories of life in Europe. Seldom mentioned was her late husband, Capt. John Smith, who died during the Civil War. In later years, Jack came to appreciate his grandmother even more as he understood how difficult it was for her to raise her three daughters and a son on a schoolteacher's salary and then put them through school.
Jack not only observed adversity in the life struggles of his grandmother but also experienced it directly. As a teenager, he was often frustrated and discouraged as he encountered situations he did not or could not master to his degree of satisfaction. On one occasion, while feeling sorry for himself at age thirteen, his mother stopped what she was doing and invited Jack to sit down with her on the back steps of their home. There ensued a conversation that stayed with him for the remainder of his life. His mother told him several stories of people she had known who had faced difficulties and challenges and then summed up her discourse with the thought that Jack could do anything he wanted. The keys, she said, were that he had to want his goal bad enough to do something about it and that he had to be willing to invest his time. Her formula could be reduced to two words: effort and patience.
Jack experienced his share of adversity in that transitional stage of life from boyhood to manhood, but he also experienced bountiful joys. Two favorites stood out. First were the vacations with his family to the Saline River some twenty miles from Fordyce, where camping, hunting, and fishing were the order of the day. In this setting, Jack learned to fish (often using bread rather than worms for bait) and hunt. Progressing proficiency with fly rod, rifle, and shotgun often translated into the evening meal.
While not necessarily intended as an educational endeavor, trips to the river and woods nonetheless were just that. With both parents being teachers before Jack's father went into the insurance business, it was only natural that instruction in camping, fishing, and hunting was presented in an educational context. Early on Jack learned that everyone needed to participate in setting up the camp so that preparations were complete before dark. Survival training in the early twentieth century was a normal expectation rather than the unique experience it is now. And along with many other boys of that generation, learning to shoot where birds and game would be rather than where they were when first sighted would serve as a considerable aid years later. In the future, the target would be humans, flying in machines that could maneuver as quick as deer, rabbits, or birds.
The second great joy of Jack's teen years was athletics. A man of all sports in all seasons, Jack played football and basketball and ran track. In addition to being fun and good exercise, athletics-especially football-was (and is) perceived as a stepping stone to manhood in the conscious or subconscious minds of youths. That football might develop teamwork skills was seldom a reason for reporting to the opening day of practice. The prospect of respect among peers and admiration from coeds often outranked mere interest in the game. At five feet ten inches and just over 120 pounds, Jack approached the football field his second year in high school determined to play. Given that his small school did not have the twenty-two players necessary to hold a full scrimmage during practice, making the team was not difficult. Playing end at only 120 pounds his first year was difficult, especially on defense.
The single-wing formation was a common formation on offense in the 1920s and remained so into the 1940s. Its basic strategy was to place as many players as possible in front of the ball carrier. Consequently, Jack usually saw at least two blockers bearing down on him nearly every play. On offense he was fast and could catch the ball, but too often he found himself still clearing his head from collisions from playing defense. Somewhat discouraged by his self-assessment as a defensive end, he was happy to be shifted to the backfield his senior year. Calling plays, kicking, running, and passing from his quarterback (tailback in the single wing) position, he was infinitely happier than he had been the year before, despite still suffering from inadequate numbers for full practice scrimmages. Indeed, during his senior year while playing safety on defense, he was flattened on one play and his coach trotted quickly onto the field and bent over Jack's prone body. Anticipating an encouraging or a sympathetic word, Jack was simply told to get up. There were no substitutes at his position. Although the team's pragmatic coach could not afford the luxury of sympathy for injured players, the Fordyce team was successful in 1922 and nearly won the state championship. The year following Jack's graduation, the team, coached by his brother-in-law Bill Walton, who married Josephine, did bring a state title to the small town of three thousand.
THE NAVAL ACADEMY
Athletics had been gratifying to Jack in high school and graduation did not end his enthusiasm. It was a factor in motivating him to attend college, and it was his association with sports that paved his way to Annapolis. Although they were not poor, the expenses of college for four children were beyond the reach of the Thach family. With World War I over in November 1918, there was little trepidation when older brother James Harmon Jr. entered the U.S. Naval Academy in the summer of 1919. His first choice had been West Point, but all congressional appointments from Arkansas were filled. Although unfamiliar with the Naval Academy, he did know that it offered the same free education as West Point. Not surprisingly, James Harmon Jr.'s positive experience there influenced Jack to bypass thoughts of West Point in favor of Annapolis.
Entrance to either of the academies was competitive, but Jack got in without taking an examination. Several prominent citizens leaned heavily upon U.S. Senator Joe T. Robinson to support the application of their local all-sports star while Jack negotiated an elevation of his math grades with the high school principal who, coincidentally, was also the football coach. Fortuitously, his history and science teacher was also the basketball and track coach. Regrettably for Jack, Senator Robinson and the Fordyce teacher/coaches were not present to help him when he arrived at Annapolis in the summer of 1923. Quickly it became evident that he was not as academically prepared as many of the 1,006 new plebes around him. Even physically he was not prepared. Before final acceptance, he had to submit to X-rays of the lungs because he appeared to have had tuberculosis. At five feet eleven inches and 130 pounds, he was nearly as tall as he would grow (six feet), and not until much later in life would he exceed 160 pounds-and then not by much. The examining doctor, assuming the somewhat emaciated lad before him had no previous experience with organized sports, unintentionally insulted Jack by recommending he build himself by participating in athletics. Calmly-on the surface-Jack related his recent past sports accomplishments and the consultation ended with the doctor telling Jack he was accepted into the academy, and to eat more!
For many people, things that are important take one to the top, and to the bottom, of the emotional scale. Jack loved the academy, the beauty of its grounds, the athletic facilities and the overall experience, but there were a number of challenges and moments that left him at or near the bottom of his emotional ladder. After surviving the entrance physical he made the mistake of laughing during the second day of plebe summer drill when a classmate marched in the opposite direction of the ordered command. Immediately Lt. Gerald F. Bogan (later vice admiral and an officer Jack would serve with several times) demanded to know who laughed and Jack confessed. While running up and down the field as punishment, Jack wondered why Bogan did not appreciate the humor of the moment. Soon, of course, he learned that a major reason for drill was the discipline it instilled.
Academics proved to be the most significant challenge, and Jack was immediately and constantly "on the tree," the academy expression for low or failing grades. Not fully knowing how to study, combined with time spent on the football field, put him in trouble. Football was tiring physically, and considerable academic study time was lost while he learned the plays of the varsity's next opponent. As signal caller on the B squad, Jack had to run Princeton, Notre Dame, Pennsylvania, or Army's plays in practices against his more senior teammates, who would actually take the field on the fall weekends. Occasionally Jack's practice squad would score against the varsity, thanks in large measure to his running and passing. In his 1923 hopes and dreams, he aspired to greatness on the gridiron. But before the season was over he had twice suffered a dislocated shoulder. The second time was the last time: the doctor told him he was through with football.
For the remainder of his life, Jack's thoughts returned to Annapolis and what might have been. Making the memory even more bittersweet was the fact that his graduation class won the 1926 national championship in football. And the classmate (Thomas J. "Tom" Hamilton) who did the running, passing, and kicking from the tailback-quarterback position for the undefeated 1926 Navy team won All-American honors. Even though Jack later understood his injury was a blessing in disguise, he likely would have traded his eventual four stars for a place on the 1926 All-America Team. Even though he did not play his last three years, the short bio in the 1927 yearbook, The Lucky Bag, noted that he "was well known on the football field."
Another occurrence during his early days at the academy also stayed with him throughout the remainder of his life. Older brother James Harmon Jr., called "Harmon" in the family, graduated only days before Jack arrived. While at the academy, James Harmon Jr. was known as Jim or Jimmie, especially to members of the football team. With a place on the football team, Jack was privileged to eat at the training table with upper classmen who knew his brother, and they insisted that he was "a little Jimmie Thach." Later it was just Jimmie. Jack's adamant protestations availed nothing, even his argument that having two men named Jimmie Thach in the Navy might create problems. Years later it did, when surface officer James Harmon Jr. received orders to command an aircraft carrier and aviator John S. received orders to command a battleship. Protests to the contrary, Jack became Jimmie because his classmates addressed him thus. Even his future wife did not know his preference for the name Jack until after they were married, and even she chose to call him Jimmie.
Despite the absence of football for his last three years at the academy, life was still good. Wrestling and crew helped fill the athletic void, and socially he was "never known to miss a hop or to overlook any fair lady there. And seldom a Saturday passed that he didn't dash out to meet some sweet girl's train." Summers brought interesting midshipmen cruises, albeit on old coal-burning ships. Scrubbing the decks and shoveling coal was memorable if not enjoyable. Academics remained a "never-ending worry, constantly growing heavier." But on 2 June 1927, he graduated, standing 494th in a class of 579. Over 400 who started with him in 1923 had either resigned along the way or were forced out due to unsatisfactory performance. Indeed, there was a conscious effort to weed out some of the class to preclude having so many junior officers. In 1927, Jimmie was not overly concerned with his class standing, but in the years leading up to World War II, he came to understand that class standing was a matter of importance. It was not only a factor in promotion but also affected his standing on application for quarters, and there were occasions when he lost quarters to others several numbers above him.
Just before leaving the academy for his first assignment, Jimmie and the other new ensigns were provided with a short course in aviation. Three or four new officers were invited aboard Curtiss H-16 twin-engine flying boats. Though it was little more than an orientation course, Jimmie enjoyed the ninety-mile-per-hour rides, especially the bow gunner's cockpit, where he could lean forward to obtain an unobstructed view of the flight's direction. When the course was over, the man who would eventually rise to the top position in naval aviation did not foresee a career in aviation.
Excerpted from THACH WEAVE by STEVE EWING Copyright © 2004 by Steve Ewing. Excerpted by permission.
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