Profiles of Courage: The unbreakable Wayne B. Thompson

Wayne B. Thompson flew 30 missions during his time as a bombardier cadet with the Army Air Corps from 1943 to 1945. (Contributed photo)

By Valerie Shelton

Prior to D-Day—June 6, 1944—the odds of an Air Corpsman landing safely after a mission was about 75 percent, meaning one in four men often wouldn’t make it home. While the statistics improved for American airmen as it became clear the allies were winning WWII, making it through the required 30 missions unscathed during the remainder of the war was a rarity. Clovis veteran Wayne Thompson, 93, was one of the lucky ones.

In his short tenure with the Army Air Corps from February 1943 to October 1945, Thompson completed 30 missions as a bombardier radar-navigator.

“I didn’t think about it so much at the time but over the years, I started to realize that every day of a mission was a day of my life when I may not have come home,” Thompson said.

Thompson, who was attending Ohio State University and majoring in mechanical engineering at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, originally enlisted in the Air Corps intent on becoming a pilot. After basic training, however, Thompson discovered he was somewhat colorblind and therefore could not fly. Instead he was classified as a bombardier cadet.

The job of the bombardier, Thompson said, was to take over navigation and decide the precise moment to strike a target.

“The navigator had the responsibility of getting there to the area and then the bombardier would take over and at the IP point, the initial position. At that point it was mine so the crew had to do what I told them,” Thompson said. “It was the most gut-wrenching sheer hysteria time because you can’t change anything. If I want to go from here to there, I would tell the pilot what course to take at what altitude and once I tell him that, that is what he had to stick with, no matter if we’re being shot at or what. The pilot couldn’t resume until after bombs away.”

When in control as bombardier, Thompson had to hit targets from upwards of 10,000 feet.

Thompson flies his 28th mission with the Army Air Corps. (Contributed Photo)

“We were conditioned starting in bombardier training in, of all places, Carlsbad, New Mexico,” Thompson explained. “We were usually at 10,000 feet and had an 100-pound smoke bomb that was like gun powder that wouldn’t explode and we had designated targets, usually 15 square feet on the ground and they were a four-sided pyramid. We would make these training runs and the bombs were set up so you would click and drop.”

In battle, the American planes would drop 10 or so 500-pound bombs each mission. At nighttime, British air raids would drop 1,000-pound bombs over Germany’s cities. “It was terrible,” Thompson said of the devastation.

The bombardier is often portrayed in Hollywood WWII films as the one yelling “bombs away!” While the saying was common, what is shown in the movies is not accurate, Thompson said. Dropping bombs in WWII was much more complex.

“In WWI, they literally were doing some of that and they would look down and reach over to drop the bomb, so [the idea on screen] came from prior history,” Thompson said. “By WWII, technology was so advanced that pilots didn’t even see their target in some cases … radar became a necessary evil because we couldn’t see when it was foggy. There were days where the radar would say it saw it and you would drop the bombs, but we never saw a target.”

In fact, the weather in Germany during the air raids was often so cloudy Thompson had to rely solely on the radar. While he trusted his equipment, the remaining nine men on his B-17, and often the whole squadron (12 planes) or group (36 planes) had to trust Thompson.

“I flew lead mission because they often didn’t have that many radar guys,” he said.

A lowly lieutenant and only 21 years old at the time, as lead on a mission Thompson had the lives of 360 men in his hands and sometimes had to make strategy changes quickly. His 19th mission on March 2, 1945 to Chemnitz, Germany, was his most harrowing one. At the start of the mission, Thompson realized the adverse weather conditions were producing a tail wind of 100 miles per hour, which would have caused severe head wind if they proceeded on the current trajectory toward the target, reducing their ground speed by over 50 percent, effectively making them “sitting ducks” for enemy artillery. To avoid this situation, Thompson had to formulate a new strategy with a new target within minutes.

“It seemed like it took a long time but by the time I realized what the problem was and made the call to the pilot saying we’ve got a problem and I made a decision and we changed, it was probably only five minutes,” Thompson said.

That 19th mission and his 28th mission to Bremen, Germany—which was also completed successfully under terrible weather conditions—were cited as two extraordinary efforts that made Thompson worthy of receiving the Air Corps (later Air Force) top honor, the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Thompson was so good at his job, immediately after completing his last mission he was asked to sign on for another tour as a captain, but declined so he could be with his wife, Florence, and newborn son, Wayne Paul Thompson, who he’d had yet to meet.

“I said [to the colonel], ‘No thank you sir, I’m married, I have a son I’ve never seen, I made 30 missions and I think I’ve stretched my luck,’” Thompson said. “He understood but he was serious. They wanted my experience because the more I flew the better I got.”

Though Thompson’s time in the service was brief, he said it has had a lasting impact on his life.

“Everything I did in that time frame I didn’t really plan and when I got away alive I thought my life was pre-set and I was lucky,” Thompson said. “The GI Bill really helped because when I was discharged I hadn’t the slightest idea how I was going to make end’s meet but the GI Bill gave us $110 a month for living plus free tuition. I think I had to maybe buy some of the books, but they literally got me started.”

While Thompson eventually made his way to California, where he worked for and retired from IBM, he initially returned to the Midwest and pursued his civilian pilot’s license at Purdue University, since, as it turned out, being colorblind was not an issue for civilian pilots.

While he finally earned that license, Thompson said he never really got to use it as he was launched into a career to support his growing family—he and Florence eventually had four children, Wayne, Richard, Jeanne, and David.

At Purdue I was so full of flying and that was all I could still think about and they had a bachelor of science in air transportation and I thought, man this is for me,” he said. “In fact, after I graduated from Purdue I went to Chicago was accepted to work at Pan American, but they didn’t know what to do with me so I ended up at the desk of a commercial business on the airline and I had six months of that and then said forget it. Shortly after that my mom and dad wanted to move to California and we moved with them and I eventually started working for IBM.”

After Thompson retired, he and his wife moved around The Golden State a few times before settling in Clovis near their daughter in 1992. Thompson now lives with his daughter on the outskirts of town.

To stay busy, Thompson frequently attends Monday veteran meetings at Clovis Veterans Memorial District. He also meets up with a group of “oldie” pilots at Yosemite.