A Reunion Decades in the Making
By: Jerry Driggs ‘69
Janet Thomas Quellhorst, SHS class of 1968, recently shared a remarkable story about her family’s nearly 75-year unresolved struggle to bring closure regarding the death of a family member and SHS alumnus who gave his life serving our country in World War II.
United States Marine Corp Private First Class Harold V. (Buddy) Thomas, service number 318409, was killed in combat on November 20th, 1943 in the Battle of Tarawa in the Pacific Theatre in the Gilbert Islands. He was one of nearly 1,100 Marines to lose their lives in one of the fiercest battles fought against the Japanese up to that time. Unfortunately, he was also one of 77,000 World War II veterans whose remains were never recovered or positively identified. There was a notification to the family of his death but no funeral, no honors, and no official commemoration of his ultimate sacrifice. The lack of conclusive information left an unintended open wound for the Thomas family for 75 years.
Buddy Thomas was a long way from his home at 390 Markison Ave. on the Southside of Columbus on November 20th, one month shy of his 21st birthday, when he confronted the full wrath of Japanese’s Imperial forces entrenched at Tarawa as the US Marines amphibious units hit the beaches. It was the first full-scale beach attack in the war by the United States against a fortified Japanese installation in the Pacific. He along with 1,100 other Marines perished in that battle. Those men experienced the most devastating horrors of war. Buddy’s remains were never positively identified. Mass graves or makeshift cemeteries were often the only option for this type of devastating loss in a faraway location.
Buddy and his three brothers and one sister, Harry L. Thomas (the oldest), Jack L. Thomas (Janet’s father) , Robert D .Thomas, and Dorothy L. Thomas (the youngest – SHS class of 1942) all attended South High School in the early 1940s. Their parents, Lee and Louise Thomas, raised them in homes on Jenkins, Markison, and Hinman Avenues. These young men answered the call to serve their country knowing that their futures were uncertain.
Imagine the constant fear of the unknown Lee and Louise felt as their four sons shipped off to war. And then the unthinkable happened. One son, Buddy, was killed in action in a remote location in the Pacific Ocean.
However, there was a hitch of monumental proportions – no body; no confirmed remains; no burial site. Louise Thomas, Buddy’s mother, lived to 82 years of age. She never fully accepted Buddy’s death as the final verdict and never received any evidence to the contrary. Maybe Buddy might come home one day. Maybe they were wrong saying that he died. Can you fathom the despair and unresolved pain of not being certain?
Janet Thomas Quelihorst never met her Uncle Buddy. She was born in 1950 and he died in 1943. But she heard stories about him throughout her life from her father and uncles but knew him only from second-hand information. There was always this unknown factor. No one ever attended a funeral or saw his remains. His heroics were never fully acknowledged.
There was an unwritten exclamation point to the sentence “Uncle Buddy is dead”. He never came home and there was no closure that was final for his closet relatives - father, mother, brothers and sister.
Janet’s grandfather died. Her grandmother died. Her father died. Her aunt died. Her uncles died. She and her aging cousins are the only family members alive with a link, albeit second hand, to Uncle Buddy.
Until three months ago!
Janet’s family was contacted out-of-the-blue with an unbelievable revelation. They were told that there was a good chance that the remains of PFC Harold V. (Buddy) Thomas had been found, nearly 75 years after his death. They were asked to submit DNA samples to confirm the assumptions. Without hesitation family members submitted samples.
The results confirmed that PFC Harold V. (Buddy) Thomas had been found and that he was coming home after 75 years in limbo. Not only was he coming home, but his remains are to be buried under full United States military honors in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The date of the ceremony is still to be determined. None of his immediate family is alive to attend this postponed homecoming, but his nieces and nephews will be there to accept the congratulations of a grateful nation for the sacrifice Uncle Buddy made a lifetime ago.
His mother Louise always kept the light on in her heart that Buddy would return. She didn’t live to see it, but her deepest wish is coming true today - decades after her unfulfilled desire for resolution. PFC Harold V. (Buddy) Thomas, service number 318409, will be laid to rest in our nation’s most sacred of places for the men and women who gave their lives that we all might benefit from their sacrifice.
As South High School alumni we thank the Thomas family for providing us insight to such an endearing and lasting legacy. We are thankful for Uncle Buddy’s sacrifice and for the perseverance of a family who endured unthinkable uncertainty. At 20, he was only a few years out of South High School when he sacrificed it all for the freedoms and security that he barely had time to enjoy in his own life. What an example for each of us!
Thanks Uncle Buddy for your selfless sacrifice! No one can imagine what you went through that day. Rest in peace. You are home after all of these years.