By Roya Koczak, Jay H. Thames
My grandfather, Jesse Thames, was a World War II veteran of the Army Air Corps. He was deployed in the Japanese theater - and was faced with harrowing conditions that all veterans face when in combat. And like all veterans, those experiences would never fade.
When he came home to his wife and children in Texas in 1946, like all veterans of foreign wars, he was determined to re-integrate into society and live an idyllic American life that he so fiercely fought for in WWII. And that's what he had, but not for long.
As he built his business and the community of Texas City, Texas, he was faced with a tragedy that would further alter the course of not only his life, but the lives of millions of others.
On April 16th, 1947, two large French freighters - the Grandcamp and the High Flyer - were being loaded with ammonium nitrate. The Monsanto manufactured chemical was headed to France to fertilize the bombed out fields of France. The cargo, nor the ships, ever made it.
A fire broke out in the holds, and the ship captain of the Grandcamp attempted to smother the fire by battening down the hatches. What happened next is the biggest explosion that has ever occurred on US soil, and the largest and deadliest man-made disaster in our history. Over 500 people that had gathered on the docks to watch the beautiful orange smoke plume into the sky were killed.
My grandfather was a mere mile away when the ship went up. The explosion uprooted his office, and what happened next was almost unbelievable. A tidal wave swept through town, and small arms ammunition, which were loaded in the ships hold, tore through the sky. Fires and explosions littered the landscape. A massive toxic cloud hovered over the city, choking some of the citizens to death.
No one was prepared for what happened that day. But some were certainly more ready for action than any other - the veterans of WWII.
My grandfather and several other veterans rushed to the harbor. They tried desperately to save lives, restore order, and save the city they called home. My grandfather later described the scene as, "worse than anything I ever saw in WWII. The carnage was unprecedented".
The town of Texas City was grossly ill equipped to handle what occured that day, but the veterans that came to the aid of their fellow countrymen and community were ready. Their service - once again - saved lives.
When Hurricane Harvey swept through Houston just last month, the city and community within braced for the worst. The worst is what they got. 77 people died due to the tragic storm, and over 15,000 homes were lost. The city was underwater for weeks, and there was very little people could do about it.
Once again, our distinguished veterans were the ones leading the rescue and recovery. Veterans of campaigns both old and new felt an intense drive to do something. Veterans from all over Texas and the nation dove headfirst into the destruction, saving lives and reuniting families the storm had ravaged. At this very moment, they’re still working to help people recover from Harvey. The support they give, not only to the nation but to people, doesn’t end with their formal service. It continues as long as they breathe.
The heroism wasn't isolated to proximity either. Damon Mathews, a 20-year veteran of the Army and Marines, and native Texan, utilized his training and service to assist the rescue and recovery from his home in Northern California. Damon identified a natural disaster platform that was not being utilized, and is currently developing a modern replacement for future natural disaster operations. He was able to do this because he saw a need that his service trained him to fill.
The more veterans change, the more they stay the same.
Again and again, veterans prove to be the unsung heroes of tragedy, both in and out of combat. At home and abroad. From near and far. In person and digitally.
As a citizen of this great country, and someone who enjoys the freedom that our veterans provide, my deepest gratitude spans centuries. It goes back to our first military freedom fighters, and is strong today with our veterans returning home at this very moment.
Luckily for us who did not serve, only the names of our great servicemen and women have changed, because the heroic actions never have...