John L. Thompson is a man who delivered hard work, dedication and integrity to the military, his jobs and his family. He was always committed to his service in the military. As a Merchant Marine, John delivered supplies and equipment needed during WWII to help the front lines defeat the enemy. He did not think about the risk of his assignments, even though the moment his ship left U.S. ports, there was a possibility of attack by bombers, battleships, submarines, mines, and land-based artillery.
John L. Thompson was born on September 21, 1927 in San Francisco, California. He was one of nine children and grew up in Potrero Hill in San Francisco. His mother was a homemaker who was an excellent cook, making baked loaves of bread for her family, nuns and priests from her church. His father was a switchman for the Southern Pacific Railroad. His father, James Thompson, enlisted in the Merchant Marines in WWII. His brothers Robert and Jim served in the U.S. Navy during WWII. Joe served in the Merchant Marines and U.S. Navy during WWII. Mike joined the U.S. Coast Guard and served in the Korean War. Rick was in the U.S. Army, a 21 year old corporal in the infantry serving in the Philippines during WWII. He was a Prisoner of War, listed on the Bataan Death March Roster and died on April 18, 1942. He was reported Missing in Action and the family did not find out about his death until the end of the war. Rick impacted John’s decision to enlist. John stated “My family figured the way the Japanese treated prisoners, we feared the worst. Rick never made it back.” The youngest brother Mike served in the U.S. Coast Guard after the war. Many years later, John’s son, Rick, named after his late brother became a colonel in the U.S. Air Force and served for 30 years.
John grew up during the Great Depression when people struggled just to survive. John recalled “We were lucky because my father had a job. As a boy I sold newspapers and shined shoes to earn money. A shoe shine was ten cents and we could go to the movies for five cents.” He remembers hearing about the bombing in Pearl Harbor and his feelings of anger toward Japan. He recalled many people believing we let them bomb because our aircraft carriers were not at Pearl Harbor and were out at sea. At the time people thought planes could not hurt the battleships. John explained before Pearl Harbor, there was a Japanese freighter that came to Hunter’s Point in San Francisco. All the officers on this ship were Japanese and all the crew were Chinese. There was a fight onboard and all the officers had guns. They killed a lot of the Chinese crew. There were a lot of bad things going on before Pearl Harbor that developed hate towards the Japanese. At this time Hitler led Germany to occupy France, Poland and other counties. John enlisted because the country had been attacked and the sacrifice his brother Rick had made in serving. John was only 16 years old when he enlisted. The Merchant Marines were not considered part of the military at this time. He joined the Merchant Marines because he was too young to serve in any other branch of the service. John did not receive Basic Training, but was sent to school to learn how to use a lifeboat. He earned a “lifeboat ticket” after training for the Merchant Marines and started as an Ordinary Seaman. His experiences on ship during trips to sea were his greatest source of learning. Over time he learned how to make hatch covers and repair mooring lines.
John’s first assignment was on the Irving M. Scott. Initially he did not know where he was going until he saw the cargo being loaded. He was sent to New Guinea. He first went to Richmond Virginia and loaded tanks so he knew he was going to a war zone. He worked for a few weeks to get the ship ready then left on May 1, 1944 and returned July 27, 1944. His responsibilities included maintenance, lookout and even learning to steer the ship. As an Ordinary Seaman his daily schedule included steering the wheel for an hour and 20 minutes, then going on lookout day or night and receiving one hour in the mess hall. He had to learn on the job. War equipment was being transported and ammunition was loaded onto the deck. John remembered “We were mad because we did not get bombed or torpedoed. I was young, excited and looking for action.” The living conditions onboard were good. There were no shortages but lack of entertainment in free time and no communication with family. There was trust for each other and respect for senior officers. Fellow personal worked together, felt their job was important and morale was high. Many of his fellow Marine Merchants he worked with were young, with some being only 14 years old. He didn’t always know where he was headed but he knew the soldiers on land needed supplies. When he arrived in New Guinea the Japanese had occupied half of the country. The Japanese made a mistake because they mistreated the natives. The natives were headhunters and hated the Japanese. This attitude helped the Americans. One of his most memorable moments was seeing 27 soldiers with 27 dogs. When the soldiers went into the jungle they each had a dog. The dogs would warn the soldiers if someone was hiding.
During leave, John worked on standby, painting and washing down the ship. He would hook up hoses to fuel the ship that the tugboats would bring in from the barges. During this assignment he earned the Honorable Service Button, awarded to members of ship crews who had served thirty days or more during Dec 7, 1941 to September 3, 1945.
His second assignment was on the SS Maunawili out of San Francisco from January 12, 1945 to February 10, 1945. John’s duties included maintenance, lookout and standing watch. He was also required to steer the ship at times. It was an older ship from WWI. At this time he was still excited to serve and wanted to see action. Supplies were taken to Hawaii and it was not a dangerous journey. When John returned he would go to Union Hall and look for another ship to work on. He was allowed to choose the ship he wanted to go on but initially did not know where it was going. He stated, “The minute you saw them load the ship you had an idea where they might be going.”
The next deployment was to the Philippines and then Australia onboard the Sheldon Jackson from May 25, 1945 to January 1946 as an Able Body Seaman. This assignment required transportation of 10,000 tons of bombs. John recalled, “Loading and securing the bombs we anchored out away from everyone else because if one bomb blows the whole ship goes.” The morale was good because there was a feeling the war was coming to an end. Later, John would help take seven hundred soldiers home from the Philippines and celebrate the end of the war in Australia. In Australia the Japanese had just surrendered. People were dancing and jumping around in the streets. On returning to the Philippines, the ship was converted to carry soldiers home. In Manila, 5 hulls were made, with 150 bunks in each one. One soldier said he had not slept in a bed for 3 years. John went on watch that night and let him sleep in his bed. John recalled, “We were bringing home war heroes and the war ended.” The ship arrived in Alameda and flags were placed all along the way as the soldiers were coming to the piers.
On these assignments he did not suffer any injuries. He received the Pacific War Zone Bar Award for service in the Pacific during the war. He received The Victory Medal and Merchant Marine Service Emblem Insignia for his service. His highest rank was Able Body Seaman.
When the war ended John’s arrival home was difficult because the Merchant Marines were not respected by many Americans. Most of these Marines were too young to enlist in any other branch of the service and the Merchant Marines were the only branch that would take them. People thought most Merchant Marines serving in the war were in their 30’s. It was reported that the U.S. Merchant Marines suffered one of the highest casualty rates of all branches of the service. John remembered, “Many of the missions were very dangerous, ships were torpedoed. Without the Merchant Seaman the military would not have gotten any supplies, bombs, everything.”
It was not until 1988 that the U.S. government retroactively gave veteran status to the U.S. Merchant Marines. John was considered a civilian during the war. He stayed in the Merchant Marines until 1955. At this time he was married and had two children so going on long trips was difficult. He lived in San Francisco. During the Korean War (1950-1953) John delivered food supplies to the military in Korea. After the war, he worked on various ships that left out of San Francisco and went to Hawaii, Korea, Philippines, Japan and Hong Kong. During each journey, he would be gone for about seven weeks. He did work on a Freighter once called the Matson, taking pineapple and sugar from Hawaii to San Francisco. When he was not on a voyage he worked on the decks of the ships, painting, repairing mooring lines and doing maintenance.
Upon release of the military he eventually earned a Class A license and learned to drive big rig semi-trucks. He drove for Nor-Cal in San Francisco. He also worked for Emery Air Freight and then for American President Lines. Thompson made several lifelong friends from the military. They still have holiday parties in San Francisco once a year. John also took part in a parade from the San Francisco Ferry building to City Hall which honored veterans. He has fond memories of working hard and his fellow marines being very serious about their job. He recalls some funny moments, “We crossed the equator and went through initiation. I remember we had to run through a line of men and they threw water on us.” He did not feel any part of his services was too tough. He also did not feel afraid but did not realize the danger until he was done with his service.
The sacrifice John made during war he felt was justified. He stated, “Our country needed help. I love our country. I was ready to serve.” His experience changed his outlook on life, helping him grow up. He remembers working hard and feeling his service was important. John’s feelings about America’s involvement in the war are patriotic, “We didn’t have a choice. We were attacked. We fought with our allies.” He feels men and women interested in serving should ask themselves if they are ready because it is an honor to serve the country. He would tell them the military offers training, benefits and opportunities for veterans. The lessons he learned from this war, “First of all do not let it happen again. Too many people get killed, them and us. Nobody wants another war like that.” He wants future generations to know “Always work your hardest to do a good job. Take pride in everything you do!” Lastly he stated, “I am very glad I was a Merchant Marine. I would have felt bad if I had never done it.”
Interviewed by Anna Lonsway on May 28, 2016.