STAFF SGT. MERLE W. THOMPSON: NOV. 18, 1923, TO JUNE 25, 1971.
Merle grew up in the Silver Beach area and was a graduate of Bellingham High School, class of 1942. Merle, known to friends as "Mutt," joined the military around January 1943 and was assigned to an Army Air Base in Rapid City, S.D. He was trained as an armorer-tailgunner in a B-17, assigned to the 398th Bomb Group, 600th Bomb Squadron.
After completing his training in December 1943, he was sent overseas as a replacement and assigned to the 351st Bomb Group, 509th Bomb Squadron, flying out of Polebrook, England. The B-17 he was assigned to was named "Casa de Embriagos" (approximately, "House of Enrapture.")
Merle was on his 15th mission on March 18, 1944. The target was Landsberg am Lech Airfield, Germany.
The plane was shot down by fighters just after the target. It exploded and crashed at Erbstetten, 19 miles west of Ulm, Germany. The tail section became separated during the explosion and fell to the ground with Merle still inside.
Germans found the wreckage the next day, and after seeing movement inside discovered Merle still alive. He suffered a concussion and many shrapnel wounds on his head and back. He was taken to a hospital and afterward had high praise for the German doctors who patched him up.
After leaving the hospital he was sent to Dulag Luft (an interrogation center for airmen) and then to Stalag Luft 6, near the Lithuanian border. Sometime later he was transferred to Stalag Luft 4.
In February 1945, the Germans started marching the prisoners west in an effort to avoid the Russian army, which was approaching from the east. This ultimately became known as "The 86 Day Long March," "The Shoe Leather Express" and "The Death March of Germany."
While in Stalag Luft 6, he had met up with a boyhood friend, Anthony "Tony" Schinner, from the Geneva area, and although separated shortly after, they were reunited during the "Long March." During the march they were again imprisoned for a short period at Stalag Luft 10 and later were transported by train in cattle cars.
Merle and Tony successfully escaped the marching column and from that point on evaded the German guards. They traveled with other escapees and eventually made it to the American lines on April 29, 1945. It had been 86 days of starvation and dysentery, but they had made it.
After the war, Merle would sometimes refer to the "glop" they were given to eat in the stalag. When out with friends, if they ordered something to eat, it was said that he would order two. He said he was never, ever going to be hungry again.
Staff Sgt. Thompson was awarded the Air Medal with Oak Leaf Clusters for "Meritorious Achievement" and "Valiant Service" for flying combat missions over enemy territory. He was a local boy who simply served his country in a time of need.
Unfortunately, Merle did not live to old age. He died at the age of 47 of cancer. He rests today in Greenacres Memorial Park in Ferndale, next to his father, mother and brother.
May he forever rest in peace.
- Mike Wilson, Ferndale. Wilson's father, Don, was best friends with Merle Thompson and Merle's brother, Earl.
Reach DEAN KAHN at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 715-2291.