Methodist Accountant In India
"Vernon was the second of seven children born to Hubert and Lydia Thomas. He arrived on October 30, 1909, at Livermore, McLean County, Kentucky.
"The young lad attended school in his home town of Livermore until the end of his junior year. The family moved to Glasgow, Kentucky, where his father bought a restaurant in 1925. Vernon helped in the business there and graduated from Glasgow High School in 1926.
"He then went to work for his uncle, also in the restaurant business, at Paris, Kentucky, in 1927-28, before entering Business School at Bowling Green, Kentucky, for a six-month course in the General Motors accounting system.
"Vernon was at Falmouth, Kentucky, from 1929 to 1938 as manager of a Chevrolet dealership, prior to taking a job at another dealership in Cambridge, Ohio, selling Chevrolet, Olds and Cadillac."
In 1938 he met my mother; in 1940 they were married. But with the news of Pearl Harbor and America's entry into World War II came the realization that Vernon would probably have to go into the service.
It was more than a year before his name came up in the draft. He was inducted on Saturday, April 10, 1943, and sworn in a week later at Fort Hayes in Columbus, Ohio. (He attended a Palm Sunday service at Fort Hayes the next day.) The following Friday he took a train to Indianapolis and Fort Benjamin Harrison for basic training. (He attended an Easter sunrise service there on April 25.)
Because of Vernon's previous education and experience, he entered the Second Finance Training Battalion at Fort Benjamin Harrison. Upon completion of an intensive field program, according to a newspaper clipping, he will study Army pay methods. Heres a postcard photo of the Fort.
And here's a letter he wrote to his wife's parents back in Cambridge on Sunday, June 13, 1943.
Company H of the 2nd Finance Training Battalion numbered 197 men and a dog, according to this July 10, 1943, photo. Vernon was ASN 35217225.
The last week of that month was his only furlough. Then he was sent on to Camp Shenango in western Pennsylvania, and his wife took a room in nearby Sharon so they could be together. To read some of her letters about that experience, click here.
Finally his own orders came through: he would be sent overseas, to an undisclosed location. On January 11, 1944, at Norfolk, Virginia, Vernon joined about 6,000 other soldiers and nurses on the troop ship Empress of Scotland. (The ship had been the Canadian ocean liner Empress of Japan, crossing the Pacific with celebrities like Babe Ruth, until the outbreak of war in Europe forced a change of purpose and Pearl Harbor forced a change of name.)
The troops learned that they were headed to India. This British colony was part of the China-Burma-India Theatre or CBI, a major Allied operation against the Japanese who were occupying parts of continental Asia. In particular, India was a staging point for supplies being sent to the Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek.
Zig-zagging across the Atlantic Ocean to avoid German submarines, the Empress of Scotland sailed south across the equator on January 19. A week later she stopped in Cape Town, South Africa, to refuel; the troops briefly went ashore. Then it was across the Indian Ocean to Bombay.
A quick geography lesson: Bombay (now known as Mumbai) and Karachi are large cities on the west coast of the Indian subcontinent, while Calcutta is a large city in the east. Vernon would eventually go to Chabua on the eastern tip of India, near its borders with Burma (now Myanmar) and Tibet.
The parts of India shown in darker green would eventually become the independent nations of Pakistan (west), Bangladesh (east), and Sri Lanka (south). The nation of India has its capital at New Delhi.
The other town labeled on the map, Kalar-Koppa, is a small, poor village. A few years after the war, my father's financial support made possible the construction of a church there. For that story, including B.R. Isaiah's letter to my mother about Christianity in India, click here.
Having arrived in Bombay on February 8, Vernon disembarked from the ship on February 10, going ashore to a British installation for a couple of days. Two days later, he was on a train headed east for Calcutta, two thousand miles away.
In a notebook, he recorded a few observations and a few tips. "Sat., Feb. 12, '44 Leave Bombay 8:45 PM. Grass Dead Stop 2 Hrs Breakfast Goats. No Fences.
"Melted paraffin on inside of waste baskets to prevent rust. Thumb tacks on lower corners of picture frame prevents dust mark on wall."
The rail cars arrived at Camp Angus outside Calcutta on February 16, 1944. Now at last Vernon was allowed to write home that he was "somewhere in India."
He would be at Camp Angus for more than five weeks, doing very little work, awaiting assignment. But to fill the time, he did write a lot of letters. Nearly 60 of them from this period have survived. To read excerpts of his impressions of India, click here.
Finally the orders came through, and on March 24 Vernon departed for Chabua, in the Assam Valley. Men who had been in Assam for a couple of years already would be replaced by his unit. On the week-long journey, they served as train guards, drawing their drinking water out of the locomotive.
According to a Time-Life Books story, this trip was on "an ancient railway between Bengal and Assam known to Americans as the Toonerville Trolley. Built to carry tea down from the Assam highlands, the railway changed gauge three times, and its freight had to cross the unbridged Brahmaputra one of Asia's great rivers by barge."
Some of that freight consisted of military vehicles that had to be driven from one set of rail cars to another whenever the track changed gauge. Then when they reached Assam, the vehicles were cut in two. Each half was loaded into an airplane and flown to China, where the halves would be welded back together.
Near Chabua was the airfield from which C-46 and C-47 transports departed to "fly the hump" over a spur of the Himalayan Mountains, 550 miles across northern Burma to Kunming in China. It was a hazardous trip, and more than 1,300 people lost their lives in 696 fatal crashes. (For a look at an airman's map, click here.)
As an alternative, Army engineers were also in the area working on the Ledo Road, which would connect with the Burma Road to form a land route to Kunming.
Other personnel in the area included Merrill's Marauders, as well as OSS agents working out of Nepal.
It's easy to overlook one detail: all these people had to be paid. And my father, with his background in accounting, handled the money.
"Being assigned to the 290th Finance Disbursing Section of the China-Burma-India Theatre of Operations," he told Harold Simmons, "I picked up mail, money and special orders from headquarters for that area. About one million dollars in rupees went through the office each month. MP's rode the jeep to and from the bank at Debrugarh. I was the driver."
The troops were paid in rupees (the local Indian currency; one rupee was worth about 25 cents). A man coming in from China for R&R might have American dollars; he would have to convert them to rupees.
The pay for pilots was good. My father told of one air crew that was caught bootlegging cigarettes to China; the captain was fined $5,000, a considerable sum in those days, but was able to pay it off within a couple of months.
The camp outside Chabua was a former tea plantation. Tea leaves were picked, then dried by putting them on slats that formed the floors of a barn-like structure. Then the leaves were "tromped on a concrete floor," according to the Simmons article, and the stems thrown out.
"Our little nasha (hut) for eight had a thatched roof; the sides were of split bamboo. The office was also built that way, except that it was much larger with an upper floor to sleep officers."
The fighting ended on August 14, 1945, and Japan signed the formal surrender terms on September 2. The photo below, according to a notation on it, was taken on V-J Night (Victory over Japan). My father is seen in shadowy profile on the extreme left. The men seem to have interrupted their celebration to watch a movie, perhaps a newsreel about the end of the war.
It didn't take long to send the troops home. Vernon closed out his work with the 290th on October 8. The next month, he sailed back to America on the troop ship shown below. The story of that voyage is in another article I added to this website in 2016, Homeward Bound.
On November 28, 1945, he received his discharge as a Technical Sergeant (T-4) with the Asiatic-Pacific, Good Conduct and Victory ribbons, as well as this CBI patch.
You're invited to go to the related articles which were mentioned above. Once again, here they are:
Also see an article about Memorial Bricks.