Virginia Johnson was a widow 57 years before her missing husband was found buried in a Sicilian village cemetery. Sadly she died while waiting for him to be re-interred in the US, a wait that continues 7 years after his discovery. The wait continues today, his memory kept by Terry, the child he only saw for 2 days as a newborn and by Virginia's sister Merry Jo.
Jay Thompson, Buddy to friends, was the son of a conductor for the railroad. Young Buddy's job had been to wake the men at the railroad men's' homes to on time to start work. He rose from these roots to graduate from high school first in the class- the valedictorian. As valedictorian, he was offered the chance to make a graduation speech, an honor that came with a scholarship. Realizing that if he declined, the scholarship would go to the salutatorian, who could not otherwise afford college, Bud declined to do the speech. It says a lot about the boy, and the man he was becoming. Buddy was a law student in North Dakota when he met Ginny, a minister's daughter, then in High School. By day, Buddy studied law in Fargo; at night he courted Ginny and sang tenor in community groups. Merry Jo remembers singing along with her big sister's boyfriend, and getting in trouble for hiding in the back seat when Ginny and Bud went for drives. One night, when caught, Bud made them walk home, following them home in the car for the mile or so. After that, the young teenaged girls ceased that type of recreation.
By 1941 Bud knew the war was imminent, so he pre-enlisted for the Air Corp, not wanting to be drafted into the infantry. While waiting to be called up, Bud remained at the University of North Dakota, while Ginny spent her second year of college at Macalester College, St. Peter, MN at her father's insistence. She would have preferred to be in Moorhead, several hours nearer to where Bud attended law school, since they were now several hours apart, but even in wartime it wouldn't look right for the pastor's daughter to move so close to her beau. The day of Pearl Harbor, Bud and Ginny were at a movie. When they came out, news of the attack was everywhere. They looked at each other, knowing what that meant to their relationship. Two days after Pearl Harbor, Bud Thomson became Aviation Cadet Thompson when he was inducted at Ft Snelling in Minneapolis. For Ginny and Bud, life sped up quickly. Bud was sent to pilot training in Texas to be a pilot. Ginny continued to attend college, but in the spring of 1942, she hopped on a bus headed for San Antonio, where Bud was a cadet at Randolph Air Field, slated yet again to be valedictorian of his class, just as he was in high school. Bill, Ginny's chaplain father, only agreed after he had arranged their wedding with a chaplain friend of his stationed in San Angelo. This was the same man who had married Bill and Ginny's mother. Travel was difficult and families couldn't attend, but Ginny's father telegraphed the new couple touchingly promising a proper wedding celebration for them all after the war.
Cadets weren't supposed to get married, so Ginny lived in a non-air conditioned motel, subsisting on peanut butter sandwiches. When circumstances allowed, Bud would visit Ginny, and the two would seek what simple pleasure they could. Two months into their stay in Texas together, circumstances allowed them to sneak into a local swimming hole on one such leave. Bud was bitten by a water moccasin and hospitalized. By the end of the hospitalization, Ginny was pregnant. Family lore says the nurses at the hospital had been more than a little sympathetic to the couples plight. Ginny followed Bud from base to base as his training progressed until, 7 ½ months pregnant, it was time for Ginny to rest with her aunt In Rochester, Minnesota and wait for the baby. On March 15, 1943 she gave birth to their daughter Terry. Effective persuasion on Bud's part got him 2 days leave to drive his new family home from the hospital. The only family photo from that time shows 2 proud parents holding a little baby in a big blanket.
As soon as she was able, Ginny and the baby boarded a train to Georgia to get back with newly commissioned Lt Theodore J Thompson. A few days later Lt. Thompson shipped out for New York, with orders to board ship from there. Ginny, 5 week old Terry and some of the wives followed their husbands to New York for a hurried farewell, after which Chaplain Arends came to drive his daughter Ginny back to Minnesota.
Lt Thompson did not know it, but he was headed to North Africa, where he would fly A-36 dive bombers for the 27th Bomb Group out of South Kerba, Tunisia. The A-36 reflected the compromises made early in the war. It was the under powered predecessor to the famous P-51 Mustang. Viewed as too weak to act as a fighter it was modified into the A-36 dive bomber. Its Achilles heel was its liquid cooled engine, ground fire left it particularly exposed to damage. But it was there, and planes were needed.
On July 10, 1943, the first day of the Allies first invasion of Europe, Lt Thompson's plane, part of a group of 4, crashed into a mountainside after failing to pull out from an attack on German trucks near Delia in Southern Sicily.
Ginny learned of his death when she found the telegram on her aunt's table in Minnesota. Soon after she received the following note from one of the pilots with Lt Thompson on the mission.
"Your marriage was one of the finest and truest I have ever seen… Bud went down in flames after being attacked by enemy flak probably. At any rate, he did not pull out of his dive and crashed into a Sicilian hillside. The men who saw him go in cannot see any reason to hope he is alive. Ginny, I would gladly give my life if those words didn't have to be written.
Just before Bud left on his last mission, he waved to me and grinned like a little boy at the circus. I'm passing that wave and grin to you, hang on to it, Ginny, because it is Bud.
Ginny, please write to us and tell us how the youngster is. Art, Cook, Fortney, Seymour and Gleason send there regards."
Soon thereafter, Bud's flier friends did a final, informal fly over to bid Bud farewell, after which the war moved on.
Ginny moved soon thereafter to re-join her parents and sister in Tacoma. Ginny's sister Merry Jo remembers to this day her sister Ginny meeting the mailman each day hoping for a last letter from Bud, and her sorrow when all she got were the unopened letters she had sent him at the front. The loss never goes away. When her parents died in the 1970's, Ginny and her sister bought them a plot with room for Tommy as well should he ever come home. Said Ginny in 2000, "I'm still nervous, like I'm waiting for someone… like I'm still waiting for the phone to ring". For 56 years it didn't. Remembers Terry, "Whenever "I'll be home for Christmas" was played for all of those years, mother would tear up. It was one of those war time songs that sang my dad's desires to her."
As the years passed Ginny corresponded with some of Bud's pilot friends, one of whom she corresponded with the remainder of her life. Once 13 years after his death, she met an Air Force officer at a dinner. He asked if she was related to Theodore Thompson. He told her he was responsible for his death, as he was the leader of the wing and had led them in to low. That anecdote troubled 13 year old Terry when she heard it, leaving her wondering for nearly 50 years if her father's death was a tragic accident or a death in battle.
It was 1999 when, Ginny, still single, learned of a neighbor that was experienced in researching the missing. She gathered the information she had about her husband's death and brought it to Bryan and Christopher Moon, whose families embraced the challenge. Patient research led them to Tommy's wingman on the day he was lost, who in turn led them to a member of Lt Thompson's unit who had the after action reports filed by Tommy's fellow pilots. The Mission Report for July 10th 1943 identified, for the first time, the pilot's specific target area. This was a 20 mile stretch of road between the towns of Canicatti and Riese in Southern Sicily, which was packed with German trucks when Lt. Thompson's formation dive-bombed them on that fateful day. Armed with the information gleaned form those sources, the Moon's returned to Sicily and re-traced the road Tommy was shot down on, looking for anyone over 70 that might remember the incident. A witness was found who had watched the crash from her home. She was confident the body she saw that day matched the photo of Tommy she was shown. But none knew what became of the body.
At the town's Government Center, the researchers were intercepted by the city Police Commandant who inquired as to the purpose of their visit. After learning of their mission, he generously volunteered assistance and confirmed the crash of an American aircraft and the burial of the pilot in the town's cemetery. Following a series of telephone calls, the Police Commandant located and arranged a meeting with an elderly man who had knowledge of the pilot's burial site in the local cemetery. Under Police escort, the Moon's were led to the home of the cemetery's retired caretaker who shocked the hunters with the news that it was he who had buried Lt. Thompson in 1943 and that the remains were there to this day.
Local residents volunteered to hold a service by the makeshift cross at Lt Thompson's grave. As a local priest held the service in the rain a trumpeter played Italy's version of taps, a local elder fired three shots over the grave, and two small containers of soil form the grave were gathered for the family back in the America.
Finally, in 2001, Lt Thompson had been found. In 2002 the US Government intended to visit the cemetery to try to isolate Tommy's grave from adjacent graves of other war dead from various countries. A tattered letter from the Army, sent to Tommy's family in January 2003, expressed regret that operational requirements made that date impossible, but assures them Tommy's early recovery is a priority. Five years later they hope it still is.
As valedictorian of his pilot training class back in 1942 Tommy had been chosen to give the graduation speech for his pilot training class in Foster Field, Texas. In it he spoke of his priorities. He said "We propose to devote our unfailing courage to preserve for you all the finer things which can only be had in a free world. This is our solemn promise and, god willing, it shall be fulfilled."
When Tommy made his "solemn promise", he did so knowing we made a reciprocal promise to him, to not leave him in the field of battle. His wife died with that pledge unmet, his daughter still hopes to see it honored.
In the summer of 2008, 5 ½ years after the receipt of that letter, Terry visited her father's grave in Sicily. It was the first time a family member, and only the second time a countryman, visited his grave since his death 65 years ago. Prior to leaving, Terry shared her thoughts about what the process of finding her father meant to her, and to her mother Ginny.
"As the search progressed, I realized I had unmet needs to resolve over what had become of my father. One story was that he just crashed into a Mountain due to being led into too low during the mission. Not exactly a hero's demise. Could I have unknown Italian siblings? Stranger things have happened. I had not realized that the livings contract with the dead is not complete until confirmation of the whereabouts of the body. One of my friends had shared this with me when my husband passed. She had to see his body (we didn't hold a viewing) to feel complete regarding his passing. Interestingly, she was an army brat. I couldn't relate to that until the search began for my father's resting place. I note now that in Iraq, even though a body is in bits, DNA is collected to confirm that the soldier is dead. The family needs this, I now know, from personal experience.
When the true story came out, that my Dad's plane had been shot, his plane had been in flames, not just crashed into a mountain side that happened to get in the way of the plane, I felt a strange sense of relief to know that he had died a hero's death. I had no idea that was within me. The recovery also allowed me to connect with an Uncle who had many stories about my Dad. I had always heard he was a remarkable person, now I had some concrete confirmation.
My mother told me in March, when Bryan was making plans for the 2nd trip to Sicily, that she knew he would find my Dad. Within 2 weeks she was diagnosed with a terminal illness. It almost seemed that she had been waiting to find her Buddy, and now her mission in life was complete. That was on one level, on the other she wanted whole heartedly to live to see her grandchildren grow up into the marvelous women she knew they would become."
Terry left on her trip hoping to someday see her father returned to the US. Her experience there was both touching and surprising as she met the villagers that had cared for her father over the years. Her experience in Italy follows in her own words.
"It was wonderful. When we arrived in Dehlia (site of the grave), we went to the municipo and asked for the police chief. We went there, with no one speaking English and us not understanding Italian. We kind of got the idea across, then a woman in the office asked if we spoke French, which my daughter did. So they conversed in school girl French and could understand and communicate quite well. Then someone's daughter arrived who spoke some English. So we finally got the mission across. On the way I had decided I'd like to plant a rose bush, which after much searching and miscommunication, we found the right one to purchase. We found it on a flatbed truck selling plants in the shadow of an active volcano, Mt. Etna. Two of the Sicilians, about my age, took us to the graveyard. The tradition in Italy and France is to build substantial Mausoleums for the families. We walked down a path/road within the graveyard lined with relatively new monuments. In the middle was a triangle of land that was surrounded by trees, freshly plowed with the cross Bryan had placed there in 2001. There were a couple of other wooden crosses in the triangle. After much ado, a shovel was located and a bottle found to bring water to the newly planted rose bush. They were very apologetic that they didn't know exactly where my father's gravesite was in the midst of the triangle. Being there, planting the rose, (my mother's favorite flower)was a strong emotional experience for me. I really felt that I had all my questions answered about his death. Then they took us to the field where the plane had crashed. There was a house in the distance. One of the men told us that a friend of his lived there and was looking out her window when the plane crashed. Bryan was able to talk with her and showed her my Dad's photo. She had been there when they pulled his body out of the plane. Even though the plane was on fire when it crashed, it didn't explode so his body was intact. I assume he was killed on impact. She said on seeing his photo, that she was 95% certain that that was the man they had pulled from the plane wreckage 58 years earlier. The men then took us for a coffee. One found his bit of English. The other spoke no English, he would almost tear up a couple of times. He looked at me and said "thank you". As I read the book, I could understand why these wonderful people would be thankful to be liberated from the forgotten, abused situation they found themselves in under Mussolini's rule. They have a day of commemoration for those that were lost in the war. Don't know if it is all wars, just WWII. Missed so much with the language gap. As they were leading us out of town, they signaled for us to stop and one of them disappeared for about 15". We could catch the smell of a bakery nearby as we waited in relative silence with the man that we weren't able to communicate with. In the 1800's the town served as a refuge for some royal ladies during one of Sicily's many invasions. To entertain the ladies, a local baker came up with a very unique pastry, made no where else. It is a 3 dimensional crown. We'd read of it in the guide book and I had a desire to experience it. When our new friend returned he had a plate of these delicious delicacies wrapped in gold embossed paper. After seeing the grave site and clearly knowing that to find his remains, about 18 other remains would have to be exhumed, I have no interest in further recovery efforts. There is no idea where he is in the triangle. I think it would be more destructive than beneficial, given the others involved. They are unknown, as my dad was until we undertook the journey. I am complete with the process."
Sixty Five years after Lt. Thompson's death, Terry has been re-united her father at last.
Thank you: Terry Shaw, Merry Jo Johnson and the Moon family