As a WWII vet battles dementia, his family's research uncovers lost stories from his life

Matthew Glowicki
Carl Thompson, 95, hasn't told a wartime story in years. Newspaper clippings and military records are revealing lost parts of his life to loved ones.

Carl Thompson's loved ones haven't heard him tell a wartime story in a few years, but a renewed passion for his past has brought those tales, and then some, to the forefront.

Thompson, who enlisted in Louisville in the days following Pearl Harbor, was on the beaches of Okinawa in World War II, earned a Silver Star for valor in Korea, and was at Guantanamo Bay during the Cuban Revolution.

Thompson, who is now 95, traveled far beyond the Kentucky farm where he grew up around hogs and tobacco. 

His tale was partly expanded by son-in-law Dan Treter, who made a hobby in recent years of researching Thompson's history. But as Treter collected newspaper clippings, gathered military records and compiled hundreds of pages of notes about the 25-year Marine, Thompson's memories faded with dementia's progression. 

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For Jason Treter, 36, his father’s research brought a fuller picture of his beloved grandfather. But the growing understanding of his grandfather’s life has been bittersweet.

“I just wish this had happened 20 years ago,” Jason Treter said.

For about the last five years, Thompson has lived with worsening dementia.

“We’ve lost the original source, so to speak,” the grandson said. “I just wish he could have the cognition to enjoy what we created and provide more insight.”

Thompson is part of the "Greatest Generation," the men and women who weathered the Great Depression and helped win World War II. Of the 16 million Americans who served in the war, only 496,777 were still alive in 2018, according to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. It estimates that 348 of them die each day.

Because of Thompson's condition, there are many questions, gaps to fill or stories to flesh out that the paper trail cannot answer.

Still, Jason Treter said, he treasures the archive his father has amassed.

One of the earliest documents is a Dec. 15, 1941, newspaper clipping from the Courier Journal.

An 18-year-old Carl Thompson appears in the Courier Journal on Monday, Dec. 15, 1941. The day before, he had applied to join the Marine Corps in Louisville, becoming the first Sunday applicant to be accepted in Louisville since World War I.

A week earlier, Japanese aircraft dealt the U.S. Navy a severe blow in a surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, destroying or damaging almost 20 naval vessels and killing more than 2,400 Americans.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan, and by week’s end America had a war on two fronts – in the Pacific and in Europe, after Adolf Hitler declared Nazi Germany at war with the U.S.

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The following Sunday, an 18-year-old Thompson walked into Louisville’s Marine Corps recruiting office to join the fight. He had graduated high school in Ashland just months earlier and was living in Louisville with a cousin.

The recruiting office, which was in the Heyburn Building at Fourth Street and Broadway, had been opened 24/7 so Americans could enlist for war.

"The keys have been thrown away," a recruiting leader said at the time. 

A Courier Journal photographer captured Thompson reading the paper behind round-framed glasses, a large “A” visible on his high school football sweater.

Thompson’s picture appeared in the next day’s paper, declaring him the first Sunday applicant to the Marines in Louisville since World War I.

“He was confident his parents would give the necessary consent,” the story read. Indeed they did, and on Jan. 6, he enlisted.

“Well back in Ashland excitement was hitting the fan,” Thompson would later write in a long letter about his life. “Friends started calling my family telling them about my enlisting and my mother got just a little excited about her little boy joining the M.C.”

Four years ago, while going through his grandfather’s belongings, Jason Treter discovered the handwritten letter.

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The autobiography penned by Thompson was previously unseen by his family and took them through his more than two decades of military service and beyond.

He earned two Purple Hearts, one in the Battle of Peleliu – which had the highest casualty rate of any amphibious assault in U.S. military history – in the western Pacific in September 1944 and another in 1950 in Korea during the Korean War.

He fought on Okinawa in 1945 – the bloody, last major battle of World War II – and in the Battle of Inchon in 1950, helping to turn the tide of the Korean War. He was awarded a Silver Star for valor near Seoul, the South Korean capital, which changed hands multiple times.

In the late 1950s, he was stationed at the Guantanamo Naval Base during the Cuban Revolution and later worked in the National Security Agency in Maryland.

In 1967, he retired as a Major to California with his wife, with whom he’ll celebrate 70 years of marriage this summer.

Looking at his grandfather’s adventures, from his climb up Japan's Mount Fiji to his audience with Pope Pius XII at the Vatican, grandson Treter can hardly believe where life took the Eastern Kentucky boy.

“I think being a soldier facilitated a lifestyle he otherwise never would have had,” Treter said.

And while he’s lived with his wife and three children in California for more than 50 years, Thompson still referred to himself as a Kentucky farm boy, his grandson said.

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When he’d drink, he’d ask for “some of that good old Kentucky bourbon.” And there’s his accent. That stuck with him, Treter said.

Thompson and his wife, Anna Marie, traveled extensively in retirement, visiting all 50 states. 

Closer to home, into the 1990s, Thompson would sit in the audience of boot camp graduations at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego and shake graduates' hands, Jason Treter said.

He amassed some 10,000 books, his grandson said, many of which dealt with archaeology and military history.

It was among those books, just last week, that the family found a Marine Corps “yearbook” put together by a fellow soldier in 1996.

The handwritten letter Jason Treter had found four years ago, turns out, was written back in the ’90s for Thompson’s entry in the yearbook.

It was a fresh find for the family, its pages containing new photos and bits of information from his life. 

As exciting as the discovery was, it was another piece of Thompson’s life his grandson cannot ask him about.

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Excavating his life has brought a certain degree of pain, he said. With a graduate history degree, Jason Treter was used to piecing together the lives of strangers long dead.

But grandpa, he’s family, alive yet in some ways lost to them.

Though flipping through the yearbook’s pages, he can hear his grandfather's voice in the plain-spokenness of the prose. 

“I gave to the Marine Corps and the Marine Corps gave to me,” Thompson wrote. “It was and is a good life. Beat on drummer.”

Follow Matthew Glowicki on Twitter: @MattGlo

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: As a WWII vet battles dementia, his family's research uncovers lost stories from his life