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The Greek Thompsons


Today’s story is about some folks who lived in Selz, Martha and Harry Thompson. Martha was German Russian and Harry was a Greek immigrant. Harry’s real last name was T-s-o-u-t-i-a-s – choo’-chus – but people couldn’t pronounce it. Since he worked for the railroad, people called them the “choo-choo family.” Finally, Harry just changed it to Thompson.

Martha and Harry had six children. Gust was born in 1923 – tomorrow would be his birthday. “Gusty,” as people called him, looked like a young Tony Curtis and had no shortage of girlfriends.

He joined the army when he was barely 18 and parachuted into Normandy on D-Day. His niece, Jackie Knott, says, “Gust was later on a seven-man patrol when they ran into a German unit before dawn. A gun battle ensued, and they nearly ran out of ammunition. They tried to get back to American lines, but they ran right into another German unit – Gust said they came right up out of the ground. Three of the seven were executed on the spot. Gust was one of the lucky ones.”

Meanwhile, two of Gust’s brothers had also enlisted. Jim, the oldest, was in the Navy and he, too, was a POW – in Japan. Jackie says, “Selz had many people of German descent, and there were some sympathizers there. Before my dad shipped out to England, he took Harry (his father-in-law) to the local bar – next to the grain elevator. Someone mentioned (in German) something about Germany winning the war, and then everyone would be speaking German. With three of his sons fighting overseas, Harry was not a man to mess with – he was short and stocky, built like a bulldog and really powerful. Harry grabbed the guy and punched him. Four others jumped in, and it turned into a brawl. Harry took on every one of them and literally cleaned the bar out.”

When the war ended, Gust weighed only 86 pounds. His life would ease, but it would be far from easy. He got a farm in Washington state, where he and his wife raised two daughters. One of the girls suffered a stroke when she was only 16. They had no health insurance, so Gust built a special house with a rehab room for her. Faulty wiring led to a fire, and sadly, they lost everything – including the entire farm. Gust’s wife ended up leaving him.

Gust’s sister, Ann, died in 1963; before she passed, she asked him to raise her 13-year-old daughter, Jackie – a girl he barely knew. Jackie says, “I was bitter and angry when I arrived on his doorstep. He sat me down and listened, and then he told me, ‘It may be your parents’ fault you are the way you are. But it’s your own fault if you stay this way.’ The message was crystal clear. A man didn’t let his tragedies defeat him, and he wanted me to realize that lesson, too.”

Jackie says she owes almost everything to Gust, and she’s glad she was able to repay him in some measure. Gust was happily remarried, but as his health failed, he wanted to provide veterans’ benefits for his wife. But, ironically, he couldn’t prove he was a veteran. Copies of his military records were lost in the house fire, and a fire in St. Louis had destroyed the originals, as well.

Jackie learned Texas billionaire, Ross Perot, was helping veterans like Gust, so she sent an email to his office. The next day, Perot called her. “Hard to mistake that high-pitched rapid fire voice,” she says. “Mr. Perot told me he was meeting with the head of the VA, and I must get some sort of hard documentation. He said, ‘I’ll shove it in their face and demand they help this man.’”

They found a book that listed POWs of WWII; Gust was listed and within a week Gust’s wife was approved for survivor benefits. The family was surprised, however, when Gust received a POW disability check. He could have had the POW benefit all along, had he known there was such a thing. Gust passed away two months later, in June 2004.

Source: Knott, Jackie and Spencer, Dawn. Private correspondence, March and April, 2005.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm