WWII Navy vet skips honor trip to be with wife on 70th anniversary
By MATTHIAS GAFNI | Contra Costa Times (MCT) | Published: May 12, 2014
BERKELEY -- Jerry Thomas got the phone call in early April. He'd been chosen by a nonprofit to join a few dozen other aging veterans on a trip to Washington, D.C., honoring his World War II service.
The 92-year-old decorated Navy officer was ecstatic, until he heard the date: April 5, his 70th wedding anniversary. Without hesitating, he politely declined.
"I had a choice: Go there or stay here with my wife," Thomas recalled recently. "There wasn't really a choice."
His wife Rosemary, two years his senior, has an Alzheimer's-like disease that has slowly robbed her memory and mental faculties. Thomas is determined to spend as much time with her as possible, even if most days Rosemary simply sits in her wheelchair looking out a window while Thomas works a crossword puzzle nearby.
Such is the difficult end of a 70-year-long love story, one Thomas recounted on a recent, overcast day from the Berkeley hills home his beloved wife designed. Rather than lament the present, Thomas continues to celebrate the best years of their relationship, and his devotion filled the room as he spoke.
"She's good when the spirit moves her. When she starts to talk, you can't shut her up," Thomas said, softly leaning in for a kiss on Rosemary's cheek as she returned from a walk with her caretaker. "We still have our love sessions. I can hug her, and we can talk."
And every evening, the couple still enjoys "cocktail hour," said their daughter, Jerrie Reining, where her father makes himself a drink and some hors d'oeuvres and the pair hold hands and watch the 5 o'clock news on television.
It's a slow, sweet pace, but Jerry Thomas welcomes the chance to talk of more electric times.
The pair met in 1943 after Thomas was sent by the Navy to UC Berkeley for training in diesel engineering. Rosemary, who was studying humanities and art at Cal, served the G.I.s coffee and breakfast on campus.
"She was just one of the loveliest ladies in Berkeley," Thomas recalled.
Thomas had just six months for training, so he had to move quickly. He danced with Rosemary in San Francisco. He took her horseback riding, ice skating, to plays. By the time he had to head to the Boston Navy Yard, they were -- in his words -- "heavy dating."
On his final 10-day leave before heading to battle, Thomas phoned Rosemary and asked her to join him in his hometown of Chicago. He had a surprise, but his mother tipped his hand during dinner, blurting out: "So, what's this about a marriage?"
The pair married April 5, 1944, on the day before Good Friday. "In the Catholic Church, you just don't do that, but there was war, and we had to," said Thomas, a devout Catholic who attends 8 a.m. Mass every morning.
After Thomas shipped out, Rosemary joined the Coast Guard, driving supply trucks to help build warships. Thomas spent nearly two years in battle as the engineering officer of 33 men on LST 991, nicknamed the "Lady Bug," participating in six invasions, including Okinawa and Leyte Island in the Philippines.
Today, he still breaks down describing the harrowing moments when his landing ship slammed into the beach and men, equipment and tanks unloaded as enemy troops and pilots strafed the ships with bullets.
But there were lighter moments too, like when his skipper ordered him to take a boat ashore in Okinawa before the invasion to nab a decorative urn so the captain could use it as an ashtray.
When Thomas returned home from war, he and Rosemary started a family, ultimately raising nine children. He rarely spoke about his service over the years, but it was clear it still troubled him, Reining said.
On the couple's 50th wedding anniversary, Reining and her husband gave the couple tickets to Hawaii, but Thomas returned them. Visiting a beach was too traumatic.
Around 2006, Thomas first realized his wife's memory was slipping. The couple picked up a granddaughter at a Cal football game, and Rosemary clipped a student with her car as they slowly drove near a large crowd. Rosemary later insisted it never happened, Thomas said.
The couple's travels by train and steamboat grew less frequent, as did her help with orchid raising. The pair still signed up for art classes together, with Thomas setting up her easel when she no longer could.
"Things are very slow now," Thomas said as his wife, covered with a blue-and-yellow Cal blanket, looked off silently out a window, sleeping on and off.
For the longest time, Thomas was Rosemary's caregiver. But as his own strength faltered with age and he could no longer lift her if she fell, Thomas placed his wife in an assisted living facility, said son-in-law William Reining.
That didn't last. Thomas said he couldn't bear the thought of his wife dying there and brought her back a year ago, hiring a caretaker.
Still, Jerrie Reining said she was surprised to hear that her father canceled the trip to Washington, D.C., and a chance to reunite with the skipper of his ship.
"I said, 'Dad, I don't know if this will come up again.' And he said, 'No, my anniversary is more important,' " Reining said.
Tom Johnson with Honor Flight of Northern California said Thomas will get another chance. The group has handled other World War II veteran cancellations for reasons less inspiring (one veteran had a conflict with a bowling tournament).
When the 70th anniversary came, Jerry and Rosemary enjoyed a quiet dinner at their son's Walnut Creek home with some of their 21 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren and a Champagne toast.
As for how they lasted so long?
"I don't know," Thomas said with a smile. "I just love her."