As a kid, Tommy Thompson always liked the way Marines carried themselves and the way they dressed.
It was no surprise that the now-90-year-old served in both World War II and the Korean War.
“I just thought it was the best thing I could do at the time or, I guess, at a couple of different times,” Thompson said. “I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d see when I enlisted in the Marines, but I knew that’s where I needed to be.”
Thompson served domestically during World War, guarding then-President Harry Truman’s “Winter White House” in Key West, Florida.
“I never met the man I guess, well, until here,” Thompson joked, gesturing to a later photo of him with a Truman cutout.
After his first stint in the Marines, Thompson enrolled at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to study journalism and began working at a local newspaper.
He was then asked to join the Marine Corps Reserve and publish a weekly newspaper, but that didn’t last long.
“I thought, ‘Hey, I’ve changed my track to being public relations. I’m going to be on the beach in California writing or something.’ But then the Korean War happened,” Thompson said. “They saw my past experience as a trained Marine and said, ‘Hey, we need those real bad’ and I was shipped overseas to help in the war.”
After a brief training, Thompson spent two months in combat in Korea.
Name: Tommy Thompson
Branch: U.S. Marine Corps
Years of service: Two years
“It was about as long as you could stand with how cold it was,” he said, noting the frostbite on each of his fingers. “As far as wars go, Korea was the worst we ever fought in. We had to weather the 30-degrees-below temperature and sleep on the ground. It was brutal.”
Being in the vicious war was worse than just bad weather.
“The worst part, I can remember, was going up onto the front lines and seeing that the Koreans had just wiped out the army before us,” Thompson said. “They were not as trained and they were not at all prepared and just went walking down the road right up to a Korean machine gun fleet. There was one guy in a Jeep who had been holding a picture of his wife. That was the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”
But still, despite the difficulty, Thompson had times of great pride.
“The proudest moment I ever had was after we had fought in a reservoir and the army retreated but didn’t tell us about it,” Thompson recalled. “We found ourselves surrounded by the Koreans but we got on the trucks and blew out of the reservoir. And, even though we were being chased, we picked up the army’s wounded because they had just been left behind when the others retreated. That’s got to be the best moment we had.”
“The Marines is the best thing I ever did and, even with all that, I’d do it again,” he continued.
With both wars under his belt, Thompson came back to Knoxville to finish his degree and continue work at the Knoxville News Sentinel, later getting into video marketing and ultimately moving to Chattanooga in his retirement to “live somewhere new.”
Thompson and his wife, Sara, like to go out to eat, visit with their neighbors in Hixson and be as social as possible, though their three children and 16 grandkids live out of town.
But even decades after his service, Sara said Tommy is still a Marine in his day-to-day life.
“Once a Marine always a Marine,” she said. “He’s 90 and he won’t even let me make the bed because he can’t bounce a quarter off of it.”