The Rev. Norman Thomas didn’t have an easy life, but parts of it were harder than others.
In the D-Day invasion of France in 1944, his best buddy got shot right in front of him. That was hard, and so was his time in the Battle of the Bulge and more of World War II — his U.S. Army 30th Infantry Divsion took massive casualties fighting its way across Europe.
Thomas, of Northfield, lived to 91 himself before he died last month. Still, he never forgot how close he was to not coming home from the war.
At one point after D-Day, he and another soldier were the only American survivors in an area overrun by German soldiers. Thomas and his friend hid in an underground ammunition bunker — and had to stay absolutely still, and silent, or face being captured or killed.
“There was no light, so he didn’t know how long they were in there. But he figured it was about two days,” says his oldest son, Norman Jr., of Linwood.
That’s when Norman Sr., who grew up in a family of clammers in Galloway Township, made a vow that became his career:
“He said, ‘Lord, if you get me out of here, I’ll serve you the rest of my life,’” his son says.
When the Germans moved on, the Americans escaped. Norman Sr. was wounded in the war, but he made it home to the love of his life, Dottie. The two were so close, one family story is they would split Hershey bars with nuts — Dottie ate the chocolate, Norman got the almonds.
By the time he got home from the war, his oldest son was 16 months old. (Dottie had a girl in 1943, but “our little Suzie,” as her father always called her, died five days later.) A second son, Stephen, was born in 1950.
Norman got a railroad job, doing overnight shifts on the Delaware River, a 90-minute drive. In the morning, he’d head home for his clamming tools — to make a penny a clam, a hard way to feed a family.
But he never forgot his promise in the bunker. And in 1960, he went to school to become a Methodist minister.
“He dedicated his whole life to God and country,” his son says — adding the Rev. Thomas even held annual “God and Country” services at the little church he led as pastor for 38 years, Bethany St. John’s Methodist in Pleasantville.
He was a member of many veterans groups, and was also president of the Atlantic County Humane Society. He loved animals, says his friend, Crystal Orchard, of Mays Landing, who delivered the eulogy at his funeral, after also doing the eulogy for Dottie, who died in 2007.
That was one more thing this minister was known for: Every year, he had a “Blessing of the Animals” service in which all kinds of animals were welcome.
He believed in his traditions. He also believed in his religion.
A Life Lived appears Tuesdays and Saturdays.
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