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This Day in History: Charles Thomas's bravery in France

On this day in 1920, a hero is born. Charles Leroy Thomas didn’t set out to be a soldier. To the contrary, he was a college student, studying mechanical engineering when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

That attack rocked many lives, and Thomas was no exception. He was soon drafted into the Army. By August 1944, he was in France. He was then a second lieutenant commanding a company in a segregated unit, the 614th Tank Destroyer Battalion.

Thomas’s heroism came on December 14, 1944, as the Third Army worked its way across France towards the German border. The next target was the French village of Climbach, just five miles from the German border. The village had to be taken. German supply lines ran through that town.

Climbach might have been an important target, but it was also a difficult one.

Any attack would, by necessity, take a dangerous route through a wooded valley and across an open road. Exposure to enemy fire was a certainty.

Naturally, Thomas was undeterred. He volunteered his company for the attack, but he also intended to be in the lead car himself. The armored M20 Scout Car would draw German fire—but also identify enemy positions.

As anticipated, the German fire was intense. Thomas’s M20 was disabled almost immediately, and Thomas himself was badly injured by flying glass and shrapnel as the enemy furiously assaulted him. He climbed out of the vehicle and began shooting back. He had been shot in the arms, chest, abdomen, and legs, but he simply kept going. He was issuing orders, positioning his men, directing their fire.

His men later said they were inspired by his grit.

As for Thomas, he later said that all he could think was: “Deploy the guns and start firing or we are dead.”

And that’s exactly what he did, tirelessly working and refusing evacuation until he’d gotten everyone positioned and had briefed a junior lieutenant on what to do next.

Because of Thomas, the village was taken by the end of the day.

“The victory at Climbach in December ’44,” Lt. Claude Ramsey later said, “belongs to Captain Charles Thomas and the company he led into that valley where they would be like clay pigeons in a shooting gallery. Charles had several things going for him. His men believed in him and they were proud of their unit and their ability. They were good, damned good. . . . Climbach was an important victory and it was made possible by a black captain and a company of black soldiers.”

Indeed, the Third Platoon of Company C would become the first black unit to receive a Presidential Unit Citation. The task force commander would comment that the “unflinching determination of this group constituted the most magnificent display of mass heroism I have ever witnessed.”

As for Thomas, he received the Distinguished Service Cross and a promotion to Captain. His arm was permanently disabled, but he went home, got married, and had two kids. He was honorably discharged in August 1947 at the rank of major.

He passed away of cancer never knowing that his Cross would be upgraded to a Medal of Honor in the late 1990s. The Army had undertaken a review to “determine if there was a racial disparity in the way Medal of Honor recipients were selected” during World War II. It was determined that Thomas had met the standards for the Medal.

What would Thomas have thought? During his lifetime, he simply noted that he “was just trying to stay alive out there.” He also sometimes joked: “I know I was sent out to locate and draw the enemy fire, but I didn’t mean to draw that much.”

Modest, as so many heroes are. Rest in peace, Sir.

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