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He died in Vietnam while trying to save his comrades. Now, 53 years later, a young African American soldier from Tulsa is finally receiving his hero’s due

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    TULSA, Okla. (Tulsa World) — Joe Thomas’ work as a battlefield medic had prompted a change of heart.

And in the last letter the 20-year-old Tulsan wrote to his sister, he told her about it.

“Before he left for Vietnam he was majoring in math,” Annette Thompson said. “But Joe liked the medics so well, he said he was going to go back to college and be a doctor.”

“I remember that so plainly,” she added, “because I was so proud when he told me that. Proud that he wanted to do it.”

Thomas never had the chance to follow through on his desire, though.

Less than month after that letter, on Sept. 24, 1967, the Tulsan and Booker T. Washington High School graduate was killed in action while trying to save members of his platoon during an attack.

For his actions, he was posthumously awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest honor for combat valor after the Medal of Honor.

Today, more than 50 years later, an effort is underway to officially recognize Thomas in his hometown and make sure his sacrifice is acknowledged and remembered.

On Sept. 24, the anniversary of his death, a joint proclamation from Mayor G.T. Bynum and the Tulsa City Council will be presented to Thompson and family recognizing the day as Joe Thomas Day in Tulsa.

As part of a small ceremony, honorary street signs bearing his name will be erected near the site of the former family home in north Tulsa.

Supporters are aiming for more recognition in 2021, including Thomas’ induction into both the BTW High School Hall of Fame and the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame.

The process to have Thomas recognized was begun by a volunteer with the military hall.

Tulsan Mike Lapolla said he first became aware of Thomas last year while researching possible candidates for nomination.

“The more I learned, the more I became convinced Joe Thomas was someone Oklahomans should know about and remember,” he said.

It’s hard to argue when you know the facts.

Army Spc. 4 Joseph Minor Thomas is likely the only Tulsan since World War II to receive the Distinguished Service Cross.

Charles F. Johnson, another recipient, is listed as being from Tulsa, but local news reports say he was a lifelong Sand Springs resident.

Even before Sept. 24, 1967, Thomas was showing his mettle in Vietnam.

Two months earlier, the medic, a member of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, had received a Bronze Star for “meritorious action in combat.”

The events of Sept. 24 unfolded like this:

Thomas and his unit were on a combat mission in hostile territory when they came under heavy fire from the Viet Cong.

Seeing three of his comrades shot down, Thomas immediately went to their aid, sprinting more than 300 yards across an open rice paddy.

Though under a hail of gunfire, he treated the wounded and was able to move them to safety.

Thomas wasn’t done. In a move their attackers could never have seen coming, he then charged directly at an enemy bunker.

Firing his gun as he went, Thomas destroyed the bunker using grenades, killing three enemy soldiers.

In the process, he was mortally wounded himself.

“His fearless actions,” according to his DSC citation, “completely defeated the determined insurgents and enabled his men to successfully complete their mission.”

He also was awarded a Purple Heart.

‘Fearless’ Joe

Flipping through his senior yearbook, Dr. Art Williams II has no trouble finding pictures of Thomas, his friend and fellow 1965 graduate.

“Joe was the star running back that year for my father (head coach Art Williams),” he said.

Thomas was also a star for the swim team, and had competed in other sports for the then all-Black school.

But football was always his favorite.

Having seen Thomas running into the teeth of opposing defenses, Williams was not surprised to learn of his actions in Vietnam.

“Joe was not that big or that tall. But he had no fear,” he said. “I could see him doing what they said he did. He was fearless.”

A member of the BTW Hall of Fame, Williams and fellow member Mike Mims are working toward having Thomas inducted in 2021.

Williams said it’s time Thomas’ story was known outside a few classmates.

“It’s outstanding that he’s going to be recognized by the city,” he said, adding that Black Vietnam veterans have too long been overlooked.

“So many veterans didn’t get their just due. And especially the Vietnam guys. They were the ‘baby killers,’ you know. Nobody liked them.”

It’s a sore point with Williams, who is reminded of another classmate, Isiah Wilson.

Williams, Thomas and Wilson were in the same woodworking class in middle school and became fast friends.

“We sat at the same table together,” he said.

Unimaginably, Wilson, too, was destined to die in Vietnam.

Williams, who also served in the Army, was the lucky one. He was never sent to southeast Asia, instead serving in Europe.

Williams has often wondered what Thomas would’ve done with his life.

Possibly, it would’ve looked a lot like his own, he said.

Williams shared Thomas’ passion for the medical field, and became a doctor and college professor.

Whatever path Thomas chose, he would have done well, Williams said.

He had a quality about him, he added, that when you met him, it was like you’d always known him.

“He had a nice spirit. He always smiled, he was friendly. To everybody. That was Joe.”

‘The ultimate sacrifice’

After graduating from BTW, Thomas went on to then-Northeastern State College in Tahlequah for a year before he was drafted.

He could’ve gotten a deferment because he was in college, said Annette Thompson, his older sister and one of eight siblings. But he chose to go.

She doesn’t know why, she said, but trusts that “Joe followed his heart.”

The day her family got the devastating news remains a haunting memory.

Still living with her parents at the time, Thompson was leaving for work when men in uniforms showed up at the door.

They were looking for Mitchell and Ora Thomas, they said. Her parents weren’t home, so she told the men where her father worked.

“I called my father and told him that they were on their way,” she said.

“I knew something must have happened,” Thompson added. “But I did not think my brother was dead.”

The next thing she remembers, just minutes after arriving at her job, is somebody driving her back home.

“Before I even got in the house, I could hear my father screaming,” she said.

He wasn’t the crying kind, she added. He hadn’t even shed a tear at his own mother’s funeral.

“But with his own son, you could tell how much it hurt him,” she said.

At the upcoming ceremony for Thomas, Thompson will stand in for many, like her parents, who cannot be present.

Her father and mother died several years ago, and are buried near Thomas at Crown Hill Cemetery. And of her siblings, she’s one of only three surviving.

But standing alongside her, she will have some of Thomas’ nephews and nieces, who despite never knowing him are excited about the event.

“It feels good to me — to all of us — that this is happening,” Thompson said.

“There’s so much I didn’t know that I’m only now learning. For Joe to be able to do what he did, I’m very proud of my brother.”

“He paid the ultimate sacrifice,” Williams added. “And he is finally getting the praise he deserves.”

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