One of the most successful Marine Corsair aces and “one of the deadliest fighter pilots the Corps ever produced” (according to aviation author Barrett Tillman) was First Lieutenant Wilbur J. Thomas. Credited with 18.5 kills, plus 4 other probable hits and 113 enemy ships; Thomas was the 7th best flying ace in the Marine Corps for both World War II and the Korean War. However, growing up in El Dorado, Jack was a very unsuspecting future hero. His life is an example of how the right person with the right skills and training at the right time can accomplish greatness.
Wilbur Jackson (“Jack”) Thomas was born 29 October 29 1920 in El Dorado to Edgar J. and Mabel Thomas. He grew up in El Dorado and was in the first class to graduate from the new high school located in the 500 block of West Central in 1938. He attended El Dorado Junior College housed in the same building, graduating in 1941.
Jack was known to be soft-spoken, forthright and dependable. At the same time he had a seriousness about him that spoke of his determination to succeed. Smaller in stature than the average male of the time, he didn’t excel in athletics. But his physique was ideal for manning the controls of a modern fighter plane. In fact, Jack always had a passion for airplanes and was known to hang out at the airport on a regular basis.
There is much in Jack’s life that speaks to his determination to succeed. During college, Jack joined and became an integral part of DeMolay. This was an organization dedicated to preparing young men for successful and productive lives. It focused on the development of civic awareness, personal responsibility and leadership skills. Walt Disney, John Wayne and Walter Cronkite are just a few of the notable DeMolay alumni and Jack was notable in his own right. He was cited for the organizations highest award, the DeMolay Legion of Honor.
After joining the military during World War II, Jack was originally stationed at the rear area of New Hebrides. He was finally transferred to the combat zone and flew his first missions in June and July 1943.
During his first mission 30 June 1943, Jack would score four Zeros. That day fifteen Zeros attacked his squadron. Jack got separated from the group and was pursued by seven Zeros. He turned into the Japanese and shot down four of them. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions that day.
His combat career is remarkable because he scored most of his kills in a one-month period during the hotly contested landings on Rendova and Vangunu islands in mid-1944. However, Jack wasn’t always on the giving end. On occasion, he was on the receiving end of the fire fight.
On September 23, after shooting down three Zeros and splitting a fourth with his wingman, Jack’s plane had taken hits that severed his oil lines. He glided his plane down to 3,000 feet before bailing out into the ocean. He made it to the safety of his rubber raft, paddled out of the enemies grasp and waited for ten hours for a flying boat to set down and pick him up.
In total, Jack crashed planes four times during the war. Twice he crashed on land and twice over the Pacific. He survived each. However, like many young aces who managed to survive the war, now-Captain Thomas would die in a routine mission state-side flying a plane to the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, California in January of 1947.
Jack’s story is that of a hero. However, he was a very unsuspecting hero. In him, you see a man that was determined. You also see the importance of aligning your gifts and abilities with what needs to be accomplished. You see what happens when the right person, with the right abilities applies themselves at the right time to accomplish greatness.
There is a great lesson to be learned in Jack’s story, especially for non-profits and organizations. You can’t plug everyone into every position and expect greatness. Jack found his niche and became a hero. We must spend time developing and growing as individuals to advance our unique skills. We must look for the unique skills and abilities others bring to the table. Then, we must be willing to change how we function to make sure that each team member is positioned to have the opportunity to accomplish something great.
The Kansas Oil Museum is dedicated to building a team of staff, volunteers and partnerships to accomplish something extraordinary. This requires making sure each person is uniquely positioned according to their gifts and abilities. We are currently building our team in order to make a greater investment in the lives of others and we invite you to join us in this effort. If you would like to find out more about joining our team, please come by the museum for more information.
© 2015 Warren Martin. All Rights Reserved.