Raymond Thompson, 71, brigadier general, writer

December 13, 1997|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Raymond Thompson, a Harford County novelist and retired brigadier general whose World War II experiences became the subject of several novels and a memoir, died Wednesday of complications from surgery at Fallston General Hospital. He was 71.

Born and raised in Thornwood, N.Y., he moved to Oregon, where he graduated from high school in Tigard in 1943. At 17, he was too young for the draft, so he joined the merchant marine.

He served three years as a seaman aboard Liberty ships in the Atlantic and Pacific.

He was a crewman aboard the ill-fated Liberty ship Leonidas Merritt, which entered San Pedro Bay in Leyte, Philippines, on Oct. 24, 1944, and remained under attack for 34 days by Japanese aircraft.

On Nov. 12, 1944, the Leonidas Merritt became the first merchant vessel struck by a kamikaze plane when it was hit by two. The crashes killed 55 of the 82 crewmen on board.

Despite regulations forbidding diaries, Mr. Thompson recorded the events on board the ship. His detailed account of the attack was published as "34 Days in Hell" in 1996.

Remembering the attack, he wrote, "Where the hell can you run to that's safe on a ship?"

The ship was rocked by a tremendous explosion as the first kamikaze crashed into the ship. The wounded and the dying littered the ship. One of his closest friends, Earve P. Higgins, was killed instantly.

Stepping into the passageway off the main deck, Mr. Thompson was horrified by what he found.

"There I witnessed a scene which I hope I shall never see again," he wrote.

At 5: 15 p.m., all "hell broke loose" when another suicide plane came in strafing and snagged a cargo boom, which caused the plane's 550-pound bomb to explode. The plane's engine plummeted through three steel bulkheads and fell into the ship's engine room.

"Our ship is an absolute mess with holes all over and parts of two planes spread all over fore and aft," he wrote.

On Nov. 28, 1944, the Leonidas Merritt left Leyte for Portland, Ore., arriving there Jan. 5, 1945.

In 1996, after a five-year search, he found 11 surviving shipmates.

He flew them to Baltimore for a reunion on board the Liberty ship John W. Brown.

During the reunion, he presented the ship with a piece of a Japanese plane he had picked up after the attack and had saved for 52 years.

Capt. Brian H. Hope, chairman of Project Liberty, which is overseeing the preservation of the John W. Brown, said, "He contributed thousands and thousands of dollars for the preservation of the John Brown and was one of our major financial supporters."

He described Mr. Thompson as a "man of intense feelings who was courageous and a hard worker."

Despite losing two legs to diabetes in recent years, Mr. Thompson refused to alter his lifestyle.

"He kept plugging away and was held in great awe and respect by his shipmates on the John W. Brown," Captain Hope said.

Mr. Thompson's successful 1993 novel, "The Watery Hell," was about the men of the merchant marine and Navy Armed Guard, whom he called the "unsung heroes of World War II."

After the war, he was managing editor of an Ohio newspaper briefly before joining the staff of The Evening Sun in 1947. He was a reporter and author of a weekly column, "Zoo's Who," until he left the newspaper in 1956.

In 1950, he enlisted in the Air Force, and remained in the Air Force Reserve until 1983, when he retired with the rank of brigadier general.

In 1958, he founded an advertising and public relations firm, Ray Thompson & Associates, and was a general partner in the agency at the time of his death.

Also in 1958, he was named executive director of the Maryland Veterinary Medical Association and was later named to the same position with the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association. He wrote three histories of the veterinary profession, "After 1883," "The Feisty Veterinarians of New Jersey" and "The Good Doctors."

In 1966, he was a co-founder of the Baltimore Zoological Society, today the Maryland Zoological Society, whose first project was to raise money to build a fence around the zoo to protect the animals from vandals. He also was the producer for 10 years of "This Is Your Zoo," with zoo director Arthur R. Watson.

Services will be held at 10: 30 a.m. today Schimunek Funeral Home, Route 24, Bel Air.

He is survived by his wife of 24 years, the former Nancy Brigerman; three daughters, Mona-Rae Thompson of Reisterstown, Rhonda Wirth of Clark, Colo., and Letitia Thompson of Baltimore; a brother, William A. Thompson of Greeley, Colo.; a sister, Barbara Tarr of Kissimmee, Fla.; a stepson, Charles H. Thomas III of Bel Air; and eight grandchildren.

Pub Date: 12/13/97

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