This interview originally aired in 2015. We revisited it for Veterans Day 2020 as many families are not able to honor loved ones who have served as they have done in years past.
Sr. Master Sgt. Leland Thomas has been called Lee, Tom, and Sergeant. I know him as Grandpa.
Thomas served in the Korean War as a member of the U.S. Army. He later joined the Air Force and was a combat cameraman in the Vietnam War.
“The Vietnam War really didn’t start until ‘63. But I was over there the first time in 1961, took pictures, motion pictures and several activities that they wanted to take pictures of,” Thomas said.
That meant he was often in places when pivotal moments of history were being made – including the evacuation of Saigon.
“We had at least 15 but I think maybe more like 18 C-130s that came in from the Philippines to where we was waiting for them in Saigon,” Thomas said. “All the seats had been removed and they told them to sit down, scoot together, then they’d start the airplane, then they’d put on the brakes and just jam those people further and further back up towards the front. Then they’d put some more people on, get them out of Vietnam like that on that last day.”
He recalled many others – especially young people in their teens – were not allowed on the planes because there just wasn’t enough room.
“And those kids didn’t have any idea how they was going to live through the night or what was going to happen to them,” Thomas said.
He later learned that some of them were able to leave by boat – including his future daughter-in-law. The closure of those events brought him to tears even many decades later.
Another of his toughest recollections had to do with the return of prisoners of war in 1973.
“And I’m thinking about this one individual who was a big, tall Marine, very tall and skinny Marine, but he had been brainwashed so much that he was just not with it,” Thomas said. “He couldn’t understand what was going on. He was given an American flag and he took it, but he didn’t know [what] to do with it. It’s almost like, ‘what is this and what’s it for?’ Because he was being led around by another Marine. And all those guys were on the way back to freedom, and to see their wives and families. And that’s the reason I’m always wondering whatever happened to this guy, whether somebody did show up for him.”
Thomas also had a wife and children waiting for him.
“I wrote more last letters than I can even count anymore,” Thomas said. “Sometimes when I’d go out on a job, I’d write a letter to be found in case it needed to be. But I’d tear it up when we got back. Maybe two weeks later, I’d write it again. I’d say, ‘if anything happens, you just go ahead and get remarried and go ahead and go with life.’”