Harry Taylor – Contributing Writer
Throughout the 200-plus years of its existence, the United States has been a breeding ground for individual success – a fertile garden of opportunity and freedom that offers unlimited potential for its citizens to dream big and reach for those dreams as far as talent, ambition and work can take them.
The most obvious and immediate measure of success is to define it by the measure of wealth generated and amassed by an individual. True success, though, is much, much more than padding a bank account, driving a fleet of expensive automobiles, owning multiple dwelling places and attaining a position amongst the elite of society. It is determined by all the complexities and circumstances of a human life coming together to define that individual – by not only material wealth, but also by character, ethic, morality and spirituality.
All around this country are people who have risen above adverse circumstances of life to achieve this full success of the human spirit. Command Sergeant Major, Tom Wanson, Ret. is one such success story.
On Jan. 11, 1937, Tom Wanson was born into a poor Columbus, Ohio, family during a time when American families were struggling through the latter part of The Great Depression of the 1930s. His father was in the United States Naval Reserve. He remembers a dysfunctional family relationship which led to his parents’ divorce when he was young. His mother departed for Pennsylvania, leaving young Tom with his father. When Tom was five years old, his father was activated by the Navy and Tom was placed in the Parmadale Orphanage near Columbus. His father, a navy gunner, returned home “shell shocked” (the 1940’s term for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). As a result, he was unable to keep and take care of Tom. In April 1945, Tom was sent to Pennsylvania to live with his mother.
He was reunited with his mother and the family would eventually grow to 14 siblings. They lived in Rasellan, Pa., a tiny hamlet typical of World War II rural communities – no electricity and a hand-dug well in the front yard, although they did have natural gas heat and lighting. Tom remembers that his primary chore was to wash clothes using a wash tub and scrub board. When he was ten years old, this task was upgraded to a mechanical washing machine, which still required muscle power rather than electricity to operate.
Tom does remember having one room in the house that was unheated and kept closed off from the rest of the house. In the winter, when they would kill a deer, the room was used to keep the deer after it was skinned and dressed out. They would hang the deer and cut meat off it as they needed.
When 1948 arrived, the growing family relocated to the nearby village of Clermont, Pa. The house there still didn’t have electricity or running water. Their heat source was a pot-bellied, coal-burning stove. Tom, now 11 years old, was able to work several odd jobs, earning money to supplement the family income. He threw a newspaper route with 62 customers. His net income for the papers was $2 per week. Working in a local store cleaning and stocking shelves brought in $1 per week. Other jobs included mowing yards (.50/yard), baby sitting (.50 per night), and what he call picking pine, for medicinal value. In the summer, he would get .06/pound for the pine and in the winter, .12-.13/ pound.
A nearby field provided enough level ground for the local boys to have an arena to play baseball. The standing rule for Tom was that he had to come straight home after playing ball and he also had to be at home before dark. One evening the store owner had an ice cream party for the kids. Tom simply could not forego the opportunity to consume free ice cream and socialize with his friends. As life would have it, time slipped by and darkness came very quickly that evening. During the walk home, he began to worry about the consequences of his disobedience. He walked quickly but quietly to his house, and he was able to tell his step-father was waiting, armed with his belt of chastisement.
Tom decided to try to sneak around his father and get into the house without being seen. In the gathering evening shadows, he was able to avoid his father and climb up a cherry tree and into his brother’s second story bedroom window, all with the futile hope that morning would bring mercy and forgiveness. The sun rose and he received neither mercy nor forgiveness. His father was patiently waiting for him as he descended the stairway. Instead of being disciplined with the belt, though, he had to go outside and cut the switch that would be used to administer his discipline. Needless to say, from that time on, darkness would find Tom safely at home.
One night in 1950, Tom was awakened by noises from the downstairs area of the house. By the time he was able to get down the stairs, he could not find anyone there. Then he ran to the window and pulled back the curtains just in time to see his step-father throw his bags into the truck and leave.
Tom’s anger with his mother was so intense that he got some of his step-father’s old clothes―a shirt, a pair of pants and boots and set to work. The clothing was stuffed with paper and laid out in the kitchen floor. When Tom was satisfied with his makeshift body, he plunged a kitchen knife into the dummy’s chest. He then topped it off with a very liberal dose of catsup for a more realistic appearance. When his mother finally came home late that night, she entered the kitchen, saw the body, screamed, and passed out in the floor. He put her to bed, cleaned up the mess, destroyed the evidence and went back to bed. His mother knew she witnessed the scene and it disappeared, leaving her with uncertainty and doubt. Tom never confessed. Nothing was ever said.
By 1952 (age 15 ), he was living in a third floor apartment in Brockway, Pa., working for the dry cleaners on the first floor. For 60 cents an hour, he separated clothes and made up hangers for the cleaners from 6 p.m. to 2 or 3 a.m. After working there for two years, he joined the union so he could get a pay raise of 2 cents per hour. The owner promptly fired him.
With no source of income, he made his life-changing decision to join the United States Marine Corps. In April 1954, he entered the front gates of Parris Island, S.C., to begin his basic training.
Upon entering basic training, the recruits had to pack up all their possessions and send them home. Tom had one possession he was unable to part with: his harmonica. Word spread around the barracks about his harmonica and one of the recruits snitched to the Drill Instructor. The DI called Tom in and ordered him to bring his harmonica and a bucket back to his office. When he returned to the DI, he was commanded to strip to his skivvies (shorts and tee shirt), sit in the bucket and give a harmonica concert until instructed to quit. Keep in mind that the bucket was not upside down and Tom sat in it and played the harmonica from daylight until after dark. At this point, the DI kicked the bucket from under Tom and told him he was really a lousy harmonica player anyway.
Camp Lejeune, N.C., was the next stop for communications training as a radio operator. He spent six months training there and was attached to the Artillery Battery, NSN HNS Battery, 4th Battalion, 10th Marines. At the end of his training in November 1955, he volunteered for duty in Korea.
Training for Korea began with 30 days of cold weather training in the Rocky Mountains to prepare them for the rigors of Korean winters. For the month of January 1954, the trainees lived out in the weather, slept in pup tents and ate “C” rations. He and his tent mate managed to acquire 30 candles and each night they would carefully seal the tent and light the candle between them in order to keep warm. One night they were able to have a brief reprieve from the “C” rations with deer steaks from two deer a couple of the soldiers killed that day.
On Feb. 1, 1955, he boarded a ship bound for Korea. He went below deck into the sleeping quarters. The racks (beds) were stacked five high. Since he was the first one down he put his sea bag on the bottom bunk and out of the semi-darkness of the room, a voice said “not there” and he then threw it on the top rack. Again the disembodied voice spoke out and told him to take the third rack because in a violent storm only the people not vomited on or didn’t have to deal with the stench were the ones on the middle rack. On the voyage, he was never seasick nor was he vomited on.
Somehow on the two week voyage, Tom was assigned to duties working with the civilian government employees who manned the ship.
His uniform consisted of civvies, jeans and a blue and white shirt. The early part of the day was spent on his own, usually sitting on the fantail under canvas eating donuts and drinking hot chocolate. Then he helped cook and serve officers drinks and food during movies inside the officer’s area, so he was able to miss all the more mundane labors of chipping, painting, cleaning, swabbing the decks, etc.
During the voyage, the ship crossed the International Date Line, the 180th meridian. All the persons on board were initiated into the Domain of the Golden Dragon and received an unofficial naval certificate acknowledging their entrance into the dragon’s empire. The initiations have been pretty much eliminated over the years, but certificates are still awarded.
While the ship was sailing toward Korea, a truce was announced in Korea. As a result, the ship docked in Kobe, Japan. Some of the soldiers disembarked there including Tom, and were assigned to Camp McNair at the base of Mount Fuji. This was Tom’s home for 16 months
Tom and several of the soldiers decided to climb Mt. Fuji, which is one of three sacred mountains in Japan, with its peaks being just under 13,000 feet above sea level. They drove to Station #5 to begin their trek up the mountain, which took about six hours. Tom said the climb was a safe climb, not at all precipitous with a gradual walkway winding back and forth up the mountainsides. On the climb, he saw several blind people being led up the path. Temporary structures are erected each year where climbers can purchase food and even stop to sleep. Tom purchased a “Fuji stick” which was branded at each station on the mountain to verify his achievement. After the six-hour trip up the mountain, the descent was a riotous slide down the mountain on lava dust. This is referred to as “sand skiing” and takes only about 20 minutes to return to Station #5.
Before leaving Japan, his superiors tabbed him to attend the ABC School – The Atomic, Biological, and Chemical Warfare School. His 1st Sergeant told him he had the intelligence to do the work and he would be the instructor in all of the Far East Command. He was the youngest student in the school and the only PFC, with the highest ranking student being a bird colonel.
His promotion to corporal came after his return from Japan to Camp Lejeune, but his most interesting memory of this time was oyster gathering. He was sent to gather oysters for stew. It seems they weren’t notified of the practice air strikes in progress there. He was drenched when a 200-pound bomb hit the water beside him but did not explode. It was a dud. This was only one of a number of times that his life was spared by circumstances that defy any logical explanation.
Another such occurrence came at Ft. Drum, when working with 155mm howitzers. The soldiers were learning how to use timed fuses, battle safe fuses that could be detonated anytime. The staff sergeant said something to Tom, and Tom, not hearing what was said, leaned over toward the sergeant and asked him to repeat it. At that moment he felt a chunk of that howitzer casing whiz by his head, just missing his ear. It went through the air space his head had just vacated. That instant was literally the difference between life and death.
After his discharge from the Marines, he remained in the Army Reserve in Pennsylvania while earning an associate degree in mechanical engineering and working for Paris Manufacturing. He worked in the factory designing and manufacturing machines, many of them for clothing manufacturers such as Arrow and Van Heusen. He received a patent for one of his machines. As he said, he got $600 for the design and Paris Manufacturing got the royalty rights. He worked with Paris for 17 years beginning as a laborer and leaving as the plant manager.
His civilian career continued in 1972 with Brockway Glass which merged with Owens-Illinois. His job title was process engineer for the company and his responsibility went from the beginning to the end of the bottle making, from the cutter to the sprays at the end of the lehr (a long, tunnel-shaped oven used for hardening glass).
Owens-Illinois is an international corporation, so Tom’s duties took him to 65 counties, designing, setting up and rebuilding machines, and dealing with different cultures. Once, in Brazil, he had machines coming into the country for a new facility. The machines were impounded and an official told Tom he would have to pay $30,000 in order for them to release the equipment. Tom called the man-in-charge and thanked them for saving Owens-Illinois a ton of money for storage since they weren’t ready for the machines at that time. The machines were released immediately enabling the installation process to proceed on schedule.
His travel took him all over the world, but the 250-plus days it kept him away from his wife, Joan, was more than he wanted out of life, so at the end of his career at age 63, he told the company he would work for a limited time, and then for two weeks each month. Part of the deal was that when he was overseas, he would be able to call Joan every night at 10 pm. When he was traveling in the United States, he would be allowed to take her with him.
Throughout all these civilian years however, his attachment to the military had not lain dormant. He retired from the military with 34 years in the United States Army Reserve. He was also called up for a tour of duty in Germany.
While in the Army Reserve, he was also trained to oversee military petroleum operations, a position he filled for four years. This operation was carried out in the United States, but it involved coordination of the movement of fuel for military. His responsibility was to manage the logistics of transferring oil to ships, then to storage tanks, into refineries, out to distribution points, and finally delivering to needed locations in the war zone.
In addition, he was also trained as a Strategic Mobility Planner at Fort Eustis, Va. This training was similar to the petroleum operations logistically, but it involved troop movement, rather than oil. At the end of the training, he had to be able to load and move troops by aircraft, ship, and railroad for deployment into war zones. The final exam lasted 14 hours. In it, he had to coordinate a theoretical deployment of troops into a combat area.
When Tom was 54 years old, Uncle Sam came calling one last time for a tour in Desert Storm. When approached by the Army, he was told that they had done a computer search of all the Sergeant Majors in the United States looking for specific qualifications. The computer gave them only one name that fit all the desired qualifications ― Tom Wanson.
This proved to be probably the most difficult assignment he had to face. Yes, it did involve logistics, and no, it entailed neither the movement of oil nor troops into the conflict, but the burden of sending young military men on their final trip back to the United States. He had to see that the troops killed in action and their personal effects were properly returned to their families.
Now in his 80th year, Tom Wanson can look back on a life that began in poverty and family dysfunction and grew into a life truly successful. Material success is irrelevant in the total picture of this man’s life, a life lived in reference to his God, a life lived serving his country, and finally, a life lived loving his family.