U.S. ARMY – WORLD WAR II
Luther (Luke) Thornton was born and raised in Ocean City, MD. Luke was a senior in Ocean City High School when Pearl Harbor was attacked and the country entered World War II. After his high school graduation he was drafted and served in the U.S. Army’s 33rd Infantry Division, an Illinois National Guard Division. The 33rd Infantry saw action from May 1944 until 1945 in Dutch New Guinea and the Philippine Islands and participated in occupation duties on Honshu Island, Japan. The division was deactivated in January of 1946.
At the time of this interview by the Berlin Heritage Foundation during the fiftieth anniversary of the ending of the war, Staff Sergeant Thornton was thought to be Worcester County’s most decorated World War II soldier. He had been awarded two Silver Stars for gallantry in action, a Purple Heart for wounds he received, and other medals. His division received six unit citations during the course of combat. Thornton’s interview was conducted by Mr. Joseph Moore, Esq. Mr. Thornton’s family, as well as the Berlin Heritage Foundation and Mr. Moore, gave permission for the editing and printing of an eleven page version by George Hurley of the original twenty-seven page statement.
On the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor Thornton was sitting at home eating breakfast with his dad. News of the attack had just come over the radio. Thornton asked his dad about Pearl Harbor’s location. Dad said, ”Oh, it’s on some of those foreign countries over there.” Thornton, at that time, never expected to be going there.
Thornton went the Snow Hill Draft Board in September of 1943. After his induction at Fort Meade, he was shipped out to Fort McClelland, Alabama. While there, Thornton joined the boxing team, a team coached by Joe Louis, the world heavy-weight boxing champion. Thornton remarked about Louis, “He was a Star Sergeant. Boy, that son of a gun was fast, I’ll tell you.” Thornton had three fights and won all of them. He spent thirteen weeks at McClelland.
From McClelland, Thornton traveled to Fort Ord, California, for jungle training. Despite his being from Ocean City, Thornton did not know how to swim, so he missed out on that training. He stated, “To tell you the truth, when we got through fighting in those jungles, I knew more about it than the guys who took the training.”
From Fort Ord Thornton moved to Scholfield Barracks in the Hawaii Islands for a short stay. The division then moved on to the islands of Makde and Morotai in Dutch New Guinea. As part of Operation Tradewind, an overwhelming force of Australian and American troops invaded and secured the island of Morotai within a few weeks. The island became a staging base from which American forces invaded the Philippines, and Australian forces attacked what is present day Indonesia. During the first day of battle Thornton was hit in the back by shrapnel from a Japanese hand grenade. Moving from the beach to the mountains the unit encountered the pillbox from which the grenade had been thrown. Despite orders to the contrary, Thornton crawled up to the pillbox, threw in a phosphorus (smoke) grenade, forced the defender to come out and shot him. He then worked his way back down the hill to other injured comrades and yelled for stretchers.
Thornton’s injures should have taken him out the battle scene, but, not wishing to be separated from his unit, he insisted he be allowed to move on with them. In yet another battle Thornton’s rifle, which he carried across the front of his body, took the brunt of machine gun fire, leaving him only with a hand full of splinters. The gunfire also tore up his canteen before he could drop to the ground.
During another amphibious landing on Lingayen Beach on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, Thornton’s commanding officer and sergeant were killed. Since Thornton, as PFC, was top rank, he took command, telling the men, ”You can follow me or stay here and be killed.” He was unaware of officers who were watching his actions. It was for this action that Thornton received his first Silver Star. After the battle, Thornton’s unit was pulled off the line for a few days. A captain approached Thornton and told him he would make a good sergeant. When Thornton tried to refuse the promotion, he was told, “You’re going to have to do it whether you like it or not, so you might as well get paid for it.” Shortly thereafter he was promoted again, this time to staff sergeant.
Thornton received demolition training in the Philippines. His unit was sent to mine a roadway to destroy Japanese trucks. At two in the morning the convoy hit the mines, and by morning only three mines remained unexploded.
On another patrol Thornton and his men came upon a group of Japanese coming across a river. Allowing the enemy to get well in to the crossing, he and his men opened fire and destroyed the entire force.
On yet another patrol Thornton’s unit was sent out to locate and report on Japanese activity. They found the enemy in a valley and sent information back to the base by carrier pigeon. Within an hour or two, artillery fire rained down on the Japanese force.
Thornton’s earned his second Silver Star when he and his unit destroyed an enemy fortification. The Japanese had mounted a large gun on tracks, allowing it to move in and out of a mountain cave. By taking his eleven-man team around and over the top of the cave, Thornton was able to rush the entrance and destroy the gun and its crew without a single American casualty.
In preparation for the invasion of Japan, Thornton was trained as an Assistant Boat Commander of a landing craft. In the event of the Navy Commander’s death, Thornton would take the helm. A Navy Captain, Captain Dan Trimper, short on personnel, trained Thornton to handle the landing craft. (Trimper’s family owned Trimpers Amusement Park in Ocean City, MD.) Having trained only on his father’s forty-five foot sailboat, Thornton was amazed at the control console of the landing craft. “I’ve never seen the likes of the gauges and push buttons in all my life,” said Thornton. Fortunately, they had no opposition during the landing, something Thornton attributes to a belief in God and the power of prayer.
The Japanese had surrendered the night prior to Thornton’s landing on the island of Honshu in Japan. Judging by the devastation around him, Thornton concluded that it had not been necessary to drop the atomic bomb. “Japan was history before the atomic bomb was dropped. The only thing you could see standing was a church. Everything else was flat, and that was the B-17’s and B-29 bombers that done all that,” he said. There was no city. Nobody fired a shot. Thornton remained in Japan to disarm the population and to destroy all weaponry left by the Japanese forces.
Rotated home, Thornton took a crowded train from California to Maryland. His family, Unaware of his arrival until he showed up at the front door, his family were speechless. When asked if life was pretty much normal upon his return, he said, ”I was really surprised by the number of fellows from Berlin and Ocean City and different places that were killed.”
George Hurley, who edited and re-wrote the chronicle of Luther’s wartime experience, knew him for many years. Luther Thornton operated a successful marine outboard motor repair and sales business in Ocean City for a long time. He was a quiet person, small of stature. For many years he was a member of the Ocean City Volunteer Fire Department and a pilot in the Ocean City Aviation Association. Hurley said that in all those years of their friendship “I never remember him ever discussing WW II.” America was fortunate to have such dedicated young men as Luther Thornton.
Mr. Hurley’s edition of Luther Thornton’s military service story was further abridged by Allan Kastner in keeping with the accepted format of the Worcester County War Memorial at Ocean Pines Board of Directors.