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SRPMIC Veteran Recalls World War II

Paul Thomas, 93, poses for a photo in December. Thomas, a World War II veteran, was back in the Community attending the SRPMIC's remembrance of the Pearl Harbor attack.

He was told not to take off his boots.

Around 72 years ago, floating somewhere on the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles from his Salt River home, a young Paul Thomas and other U.S. soldiers like him were ordered not to take off their boots. The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community member and U.S. Marine didn’t initially know where the battleship was headed, except that he was off to war, somewhere in the Pacific.

Thomas’ ship carrying his U.S. 2nd Marine Division was en route to Saipan, a small island in the Mariana Islands, south of Japan and east of the Philippines. It was wartime and less than three years after Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Japan occupied Saipan and the United States wanted to take the island. To do that, soldiers had to attack on foot and on the island’s shore. The coral next to the shore was “bad there,” Thomas said, hence the boot warning. His division was dropped off on the shore near the village of Garapan to gunfire.

“We landed, did what we had to do,” he said.

A 93-year-old Thomas remembers the gritty details of his time in World War II. He is believed to be the last remaining SRPMIC World War II veteran. That might not be the case if it wasn’t for a random post in Garapan, and perhaps, good fortune.

Paul L. Thomas
AAN File Photo
SRPMIC member and World War II veteran Paul Thomas shakes hands in December at the Community's remembrance of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Thomas was checking on an area in the village and happened to walk behind a small post just as he heard a sniper rifle gunshot and the sound of a bullet hitting the post, near his face. Hundreds of Americans were killed in the Battle of Saipan.

“I guess I was one of the lucky ones,” he said.

After the U.S. secured the island, Thomas got severely ill and woke up in a hospital in Hawaii. He was diagnosed with Dengue fever, a mosquito-borne disease common in that part of the world. The illness kept him in the hospital for weeks. While recuperating, Thomas said he shook the hand of visiting First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. It was a proud moment, he said.

Once healthy, he was shipped back to California, where just a few short years earlier he attended basic training at Camp Pendleton in San Diego. He finished his tour in the San Francisco area. In all, Thomas dedicated four years to the U.S. Marine Corps.

After his service, he married his wife, Rena, in 1947. They had met 10 years earlier in high school in Santa Fe, N.M.

Thomas spent many years as a criminal investigator in the Southwest, including on the Gila River Indian Community. He retired and spent a brief period as chief judge for the SRPMIC before moving back to New Mexico.

Thomas doesn’t get back to the Community often. He attended the Community’s remembrance of the Pearl Harbor attack in December. SRPMIC President Delbert Ray, Sr. recognized Thomas’ presence to the crowd and thanked him for his service.