ATLANTIC CITY — Local World War II veteran Jim Thomas can still vividly remember going to a Navy recruiting center in Philadelphia with his brother and father in 1940 when the country was on the brink of war.
Thomas’ father, Adam, was a World War I veteran who served in the Navy for nearly 30 years starting in 1912. There was no doubt his sons would follow in his footsteps.
“No one ever walked this planet who loved the Navy more than my dad,” said Thomas, who has lived in Atlantic City his entire life. “It became his family, and he stayed in until he retired.”
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So when Adam Thomas and two of his sons — Robert, who had just turned 18, and Jim, who was six years younger — walked into the recruiting center to talk about Robert signing up, the recruiter ignored the sons and only asked their father some questions.
“(He) just looked at my dad and said, ‘Well, what do you think, Mr. Thomas? Should we sign him up for four years or six years?’” Thomas said. “And my dad immediately said six years without hesitation.”
Just over a year later, Robert Thomas, called “Barney” by his family and friends, was in the water at Pearl Harbor picking up survivors after Japanese forces bombed the naval base Dec. 7, 1941, and thrust the United States into World War II.
Robert Thomas spent his time at Pearl Harbor and the entire war stationed on the USS Pennsylvania. Leading up to the attack on the Hawaiian naval base, the Japanese had identified the Pennsylvania as one of its primary targets because it was one of the flagship battleships of the fleet and the sister ship of the USS Arizona.
Just days before, however, the Pennsylvania was moved to a dry dock for repairs and was spared from being destroyed. The battleship that took the place of the Pennsylvania in the harbor, the USS Helena, was bombed and heavily damaged that day.
“(My brother) spent the entire war on the USS Pennsylvania, which I think was one of the luckiest ships out there,” Jim Thomas said.
The Pennsylvania was involved in some of the heaviest fighting in the Pacific Theater, which included the bombardment of Guam, the Philippines, Saipan and Kwajalein Island.
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Just days before Japan surrendered, the Pennsylvania was torpedoed by a submarine that opened a 30-foot hole in the stern. Emergency repairs were done, but the ship had to return to the United States traveling three knots an hour.
When he returned home to Atlantic City, Robert Thomas opened Thomas Motors on Albany Avenue. He died in 1977.
Jim Thomas, 89, served in the Navy during WWII in 1944 and 1945 and opened Jim Thomas Motors at Annapolis and Ventnor avenues. He still lives in Atlantic City with his wife, Dolores.
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“I like to think that when my brother made his last cruise to heaven, there was another sailor there with seven hash marks that said, ‘Come aboard, son, you brought honor to your family and your country,’” Jim Thomas said.