Shot in the chest, legs and arms, Second Lieutenant Charles Thomas nevertheless refused to be evacuated to safety until he had directed the positioning of anti-tank guns to effectively blunt a German attack on his task force. Thomas and four platoons under his direction had been ordered to capture Climbach, a strategic French village five miles from the German border. Leading the assault, Thomas’ armored scout car had been hit by German tank fire. He and his crew were all injured, but Thomas assisted his men to safety, sustaining additional wounds in the process. “I know I was sent out to locate and draw the enemy fire, but I didn’t mean to draw that much.” He said, years later.
Thomas’ direction of the anti-tank fire enabled one the platoons, 3rd Platoon, C Company, 614th Tank Destroyer Battalion, to successfully repel the German counteroffensive after a four hour battle. They captured the strategic village, and the German Panzer Division retreated to the Siegfried Line. The platoon was eventually awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation, the first black combat unit to be so awarded. Thomas himself was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions.
Thomas retired from the Army in 1947 with the rank of Major. He married in 1949, had two children, and worked as a missile technician and computer programmer. He died in 1980 at the age of 59.
In the early 1990’s the Army commissioned a study to determine if racism had been a factor in the failure to award Black soldiers the Medal of Honor for their actions during World War II. The study determined that there had indeed been a disparity in the review process. As a result, seven Black soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor, including Thomas. He was awarded the medal posthumously, in 1997. His citation reads as follows:
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty: Then Lieutenant Charles L. Thomas distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action on 14 December 1944. One platoon of Company C, 614th Tank Destroyer Battalion, was designated as the lead element in a task force formed to storm and capture the village of Climbach, France. Lieutenant Thomas, the Commanding Officer of Company C, realized, with the obscurity of information regarding the enemy and a complete lack of reconnaissance, the mission would be an extremely dangerous one. Fully cognizant of the danger, Lieutenant Thomas volunteered to command the selected platoon of his company and ride in the column’s leading vehicle – a highly maneuverable, but equally vulnerable, M-20 scout car. Lieutenant Thomas knew that if there was a concentration of enemy armor in the village, as was believed, he would absorb the initial shock of the first enemy resistance. The task force left Preuschdorf, France, at 1023 hours, and proceeded to advance in column toward Chimbach. Lieutenant Thomas in his scout car stayed well in front of the column. At 1400 hours, upon reaching the high ground southeast of the village, Lieutenant Thomas experienced initial contact with the enemy. As his scout car advanced to an exposed position on the heights, he received intense direct fire from an enemy artillery, self-propelled guns, and small arms at a range of seven hundred yards. The first burst of hostile fire disabled the scout car and severely wounded Lieutenant Thomas. He immediately signaled the column to halt. Before leaving the wrecked vehicle, Lieutenant Thomas and the crew found themselves subjected to a veritable hail of enemy fire. Lieutenant Thomas received multiple gunshot wounds in his chest, legs, and left arm. In spite of the intense pain caused by his wounds, Lieutenant Thomas ordered and directed the dispersion and emplacement of his first two antitank guns. In a few minutes these guns were effectively returning the enemy fire. Realizing that it would be impossible for him to remain in command of the platoon because of his injuries, Lieutenant Thomas then signaled for the platoon commander to join him. Lieutenant Thomas then thoroughly oriented him as to the enemy gun positions, his ammunition status, and the general situation. Although fully cognizant of the probable drastic consequences of not receiving prompt medical attention, Lieutenant Thomas refused evacuation until he felt certain that his junior officer was in full control of the situation. Only then did Lieutenant Thomas allow his evacuation to the rear. Throughout the action, Lieutenant Thomas displayed magnificent personal courage and a complete disregard for his own safety. His extraordinary heroism spurred the soldiers of the platoon to a fierce determination to triumph, and resulted in a mass display of heroism by them. Lieutenant Thomas’ intrepid actions throughout the operation reflect the highest traditions of the military service.”
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Photo: U.S. Army, public domain.