Leon Thomas, raised in poverty, decorated in combat, successful in business, dies at 89
By STEVEN MAYER | The Bakersfield Californian | Published: March 20, 2021
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — He was born in Oklahoma and raised in a little sharecropper village called Poverty Hill. He later found success in Bakersfield, but not before becoming a war hero after earning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his actions as a U.S. Army medic in Korea.
One friend called Leon Thomas "a veteran's veteran," and for some he seemed nearly invincible. But on March 14 the onetime owner of Jumbo Burger drive-in and a slew of other local businesses died after fighting back cancer and other illnesses for years. He was 89.
Almost four years ago, Thomas and his wife of nearly seven decades, the former Mary Imogene Cherry, moved from their Bakersfield home to Merced to be close to their daughter, Karen Helton and her family.
"It was perfect," Helton said of the arrangement.
Her aging parents lived right next door, and in recent months, moved into their home.
"He definitely had an interesting life," his daughter said.
Born in 1931, Thomas was the son of a sharecropper who eked out a living working somebody else's 20 acres of dirt.
"My mother was alone at the height of the Depression with two kids to feed," Leon Thomas recalled in a 2017 interview.
She sold the farm implements and the livestock to bury her husband.
Eventually, Leon's mom would marry another sharecropper. They lived a simple life, hauling water from Flash Creek, nearly a mile from Poverty Hill. They raised their own hogs and chickens.
They would hang the hams in the cellar to cure and they rendered the fat to make lard. His mother used the same cast-iron kettle to cook, to make soap and to wash clothes.
The boys hunted squirrels, rabbits and opossums. They sold the hides and dined on the meat.
"We were itinerant farmworkers," Thomas remembered.
Working "sun to sun" was the norm. Getting ahead was not.
But his fortunes began to change following the family's arrival in Arvin and the Bakersfield area.
He competed as an amateur boxer throughout much of his youth. He graduated from Bakersfield High School in 1950, and enlisted in the Army the following January.
"We had much in common," said longtime friend and fellow combat veteran Andy Wahrenbrock.
Although Wahrenbrock served in Vietnam, not Korea, both men received the Combat Medic Badge, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. And both were proudest of the medic badge.
"I worked alongside Leon on the Kern Veteran Memorial project since 2002," Wahrenbrock remembered. "He asked me early on, which I did, to join the local chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, in which he was a pivotal member. I asked Leon to join the local Sons of the American Revolution which he did."
"Leon was a man among men. I shall miss him dearly."
Another decorated Vietnam veteran, David Jackson, is stricken over the loss.
"On March 8, Leon called me and left a message," Jackson said. Jackson and his wife, Rosa, were out of town.
"We made plans to drive up and see him this week," said Jackson. "When Leon passed on Sunday, it was heartbreaking."
Thomas wasn't only a friend, he became a mentor after Jackson got out of the military in 2009.
The two also served together in the Military Order of the Purple Heart, a veteran organization comprised solely of combat-wounded warriors from all conflicts. Jackson eventually rose to the position of national adjutant, a role that took him to Washington, D.C.
"He was very straightforward," Jackson said. "We could talk about anything. Even when our positions differed, we'd walk away with a better understanding of each other.
"That's what made him so special to me," he said.
A letter that appeared in The Californian on Dec. 17, 1951, would describe a harrowing battle that made Thomas a hero to his comrades in arms. He would not learn of its existence for 65 years after its publication.
"We are publishing this letter just as received from a soldier in Korea," the preface reads. "It has not been edited nor changed. It tells an eloquent story of heroism, of men doing their duty."
Written by Assistant Platoon Sgt. Wiley Jones, of the U.S. Army's 8th Cavalry Regiment, Company C, the letter tells the story of " Charlie Company," on recon patrol in a river canyon near the village of Agok, North Korea.
"Me and the boys in the platoon have decided to write to you to give you some news we think the folks around Bakersfield will be interested in," Jones wrote.
Jones described the platoon as it made its way upriver. Suddenly someone spotted enemy soldiers in the cliffs above them.
"We had walked into an ambush," Jones recalled.
Earl Leon "Doc" Thomas, the platoon's medic, was the last man in the column, maybe 30 feet behind Jones.
"We all hit the dirt or rocks," Jones continued. "Some of the men were across the river and some went into the river at the crossing."
Thomas, who had turned 20 in Korea the previous June, had begun his career in combat unarmed. As a wartime medic, the idea was that he would be a noncombatant, there simply to aid the wounded, not engage the enemy.
"I didn't want to carry a gun," Thomas told The Californian in 2017. "I didn't want to shoot anybody."
But the reality of combat — being fired upon in the heat of battle — forced him to change his position. And change he did.
Not only did he begin carrying the Army's standard-issue .45-caliber sidearm, he also carried a long-barrel Western-style Colt .45 revolver he had bought from a fellow grunt.
According to Sgt. Jones' letter, a squad of Chinese soldiers was advancing from behind.
"Doc was about 10 or 15 yards behind me," Jones said. "He was armed with a .45 pistol. He raised up and opened up with his .45 and three of them dropped."
Thomas never knew of the letter sent with such appreciation from his buddies in Charlie Company until 2016, when students in BHS teacher Ken Hooper's archiving class discovered the letter and Hooper gave a copy to Thomas.
"He was shocked," Hooper deadpanned.
When a grenade landed at Thomas' feet, he dove behind a large rock, but nevertheless suffered several nonlethal wounds.
"When the call for medic came he went to the wounded, paying no attention to the ... machine gun up on the cliff chattering away at him ..." Jones wrote nearly 70 years ago.
Despite his wounds, Thomas made his way across the river to tend to the wounds of the platoon's radioman.
He would receive a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his actions that day. He would also earn the love of his comrades.
"Our hats are off to our 'Doc.' We think we have the best one in Korea," Jones wrote.