This week’s America250 salute is Army Veteran Charles L. Thomas.
Charles Leroy Thomas was born in 1920 in Birmingham, Alabama. He and his family soon moved to Detroit, Michigan, where Thomas lived his formative years. After showing a talent for mechanics, Thomas pursued a mechanical engineering degree at Wayne State University. He worked for the Ford Motor Company River Rouge Factory as a steel molder. The Army drafted him in 1942 as an infantryman. He then transferred to Camp Wolters in Texas for officer training. Thomas graduated as a second lieutenant in 1943.
Thomas served in the 614th Tank Destroyer Battalion, a segregated World War II unit. While Thomas was a lieutenant and led C Company, the battalion officers were white. The battalion underwent training at Fort Hood, Texas, and deployed to England in August 1944. They landed in France in October of the same year and saw action against the enemy in Metz, France, in November. The battalion’s duties were to tow large anti-tank guns into battle and destroy enemy tanks and defensive positions. The battalion saw action along the German and French border, helping to capture and secure small towns.
On Dec. 14, 1944, Thomas volunteered to lead an attack on the town of Climbach. Thomas led the attack in an armored scout car, with Sherman tanks and infantry following him. Approaching Climbach up a narrow hill, enemy tank and artillery fire hit Thomas’s vehicle, wounding him. Thomas immediately began aiding men around him wounded by the blast. He also returned fire with a machine gun on top of the scout car. In aiding others, he received further wounds to his arms, legs and chest. Thomas ordered his anti-tank guns and infantry into key positions to subdue enemy defensive positions.
Thomas and his men engaged in a five-hour-long firefight with the Germans. The unit’s attack distracted the Germans long enough for other American soldiers to take a longer route around the town and outflank the Germans.
Only after ensuring his men were safe and briefing his superior officer on the situation did Thomas retreat from the battlefield in order to receive medical help for his numerous wounds. He received stitches to his chest and stomach and parts of his right arm. Thomas promoted to captain and received a Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in capturing Climbach. Thomas stated, “I was just trying to stay alive out there” when referring to the battle.
He honorably discharged from the Army in 1947, having achieved the rank of major. He married Bertha Thompson in 1949 and together they raised two children, Michael and Linda. Thomas worked as a missile technician at Selfridge Air Force Base before working as a computer programmer for the Internal Revenue Service. He passed away in 1980 due to cancer at the age of 59.
Thomas was the second African American to receive a Distinguished Service Cross during World War II. The award was upgraded to a Medal of Honor in 1997 after an investigation into the denial of medals to African American servicemen and women during World War II. Thomas was one of seven Black Veterans who had their Distinguished Service Cross’s upgraded to Medals of Honor in 1997.
We honor his service.
VA is highlighting 250 Veterans leading up to July 4, 2026, which marks 250 years of independence. Learn more about the count down to 250 years of the American spirit at https://america250.org/.
Writer: Jack Patterson
Editors: Alexander Reza and Julia Pack
Fact Checker: Timothy Georgetti
Graphic Designer: Kiki Kelley