David Lauderdale

Marine aviator leaves us under blue skies of freedom

Lt. Gen. William G. Thrash
Lt. Gen. William G. Thrash

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. William Gay Thrash's final hour came on the Fourth of July.

He was a child of the Great Depression in Atlanta, where his father was a civil engineer who built a street named Peachtree. Like his dad, Thrash played football at Georgia Tech. He graduated in 1939 as the top cadet in the Naval ROTC. Dean George C. Griffin lent him the money to get to Washington, D.C., and he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps on July 14.

When he retired in 1972, Thrash was something of a legend. In World War II, he flew more than 100 combat reconnaissance missions over enemy territory. In Korea, he was shot down and brutalized as a prisoner of war. In Vietnam, as commanding general of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, he was the only general known to fly emergency medical evacuations and participate in combat operations.

His views on conduct as a POW made it into the Guidebook for Marines. As senior officer in the prisoner of war camp, he organized the prisoners and demanded that they not give up on life or give in to the enemy. Congress took notice when most of his men survived the camp.

Thrash also wrote the tactical doctrine for Marine Corps aviation in close-air support and the command control for interservice operations with the Air Force.

He gave something more precious to the Corps and his country. His son, Ralph, a 31-year-old Marine, was killed in 1978 in an A-4 training exercise. His other son, Gay, is a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and an artillery battalion commander.

The general was a corporate president in retirement. He retired again and moved to Hilton Head Island in 1993. He was about through with golf by the time he got here. After his wife, Virginia, died, he married Margie "Woo" Guss, whose late husband, Bill, was a career Marine. Thrash loved conversations with the Rev. Bob Cuttino, whose years at the Baptist Church of Beaufort gave him special insight into Marine officers.

Gay Thrash gave the eulogy at the historic oak-shaded Beaufort National Cemetery on July 8. The 94-year-old general's tombstone will be simple, blending in with rows of others. It will include short abbreviations of only his top medals.

It won't say that nine of his months as a POW were spent in a 9-foot hole in the cold ground. It was solitary confinement, except for the rats. Twice, he was put before a Chinese Communist firing squad. He'd say later he stood there at peace, and that's when his faith was strongest.

He never buckled in the Korean prison, so that back home on the Fourth of July we are still free. We're free to gather, speak, write, protest, pray. Our prayers should be ones of thanksgiving.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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Read retired Lt. Gen. William Gay Thrash's obituary