“Her Last Letter”
Ivan D. Thunder published his first book last year. Thunder is 92 years old. And what kind of book did this Navy veteran of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II write?
“It’s primarily a love story,” Thunder said.
Besides being a boy-finally-meets-one-awsome-girl story, “Her Last Letter” is a compelling history lesson.
“It takes place during World War II and also includes the history of a Seabee battalion from the time it was organized; it travels and everything else,” the Grayslake resident said. “It goes up to the battle of Iwo Jima.”
The first time Thunder saw his true love, Rosemary Hughes of Chicago, it was literally across a crowded room–the ballroom of the Sovereign Hotel, October 1937. He noticed her and learned her name from a mutual friend. Later that same evening Rosemary learned of his name from her sister. And that was all, no love at first sight. They didn’t meet. And they didn’t even have their first date until five and half years later.
During those intervening years, Rosemary worked as a secretary and Ivan, an unemployed civil engineer, eventually found work on the Panama Canal Third Locks Project. A former Navy reservist during college, Thunder applied for a commission in the Navy during the summer of 1942. Nine months later he received it and headed home to Chicago for a quick visit with his father. He arrived with only 36 hours to spare before he was due to report for training at Camp Peary, Williamsburg, Va.
“I was in town for a day and half and I wanted a date. After being in Panama for two years I thought it’d be nice to go out on a date because I never met anybody there that I was interested in,” he said.
From what little information he had about Hughes, he found her telephone number in the phone book and asked her out to a dance.
“Well, we certainly hit it off right from the beginning. About six months later to the day we got married,” he said. That was October 23, 1943. “In the meantime I was assigned to a battalion so I got married on our embarkation leave. Didn’t want it that way but that’s the way it worked out.” It was a 10-day leave, “but we only had a five-day honeymoon.”
Yet, it was the start of a marriage that lasted 61 years and brought them seven children, 26 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Rosemary Thunder died in 2004. Thunder’s book, “Her Last Letter,” is both a tribute to her and his memoirs of the war years.
The book’s title is significant because it was an angry letter and the last one Thunder received from his wife until after the 133rd Naval Construction Battalion landed on Iwo Jima. On February 20, 1945, Lt. (jg) Thunder landed on Yellow Beach 1 not knowing why his wife was upset with him, and he had no more time to think about it.
Iwo Jima was critically needed as an air base for bombing missions on Japan. Losses among aircrews were becoming unacceptable. It was the Marines’ job to seize the island and the Seabees’ job to build the all-important airfields. But to do either job, they needed a constant supply of fresh water. Getting it was the job of Thunder’s Company B.
“We set up this desalinization plant right on the beach. We had a canvas tank that held about 9,000 gallons,” he said. “Right on the beach. Right under Mt. Suribachi. Later on we built a big plant right were our camp was. We could produce about 16,000 gallons a day. We had to pump it up from the ocean, 230 feet.”
Although he was so near to Mt. Suribachi, Thunder didn’t see either of the two flag raisings.
“Well, we were a mile away and somebody said to me, ‘There’s a flag on top of Mt. Suribachi!’ So you look up, see the flag is there, and you go back to work. That’s what it amounted to. There was no big fuss about it. When you’re a mile away you can hardly see the flag,” he said.
After the island was secured, the Marines moved on and an Army Garrison Force moved in. The Seabees remained and continued building the facilities needed for the airbase. Thunder eventually returned home to Rosemary and their first child.
Currently, Thunder is working on the sequel to his first book. The next one continues from D-Day-plus-1 to the end of the war and contains his essays on the war.
“Her Last Letter” can be purchased on line at www.trafford.com and is available at the Grayslake Area Library, the U.S. Naval Academy library, and the library at IIT. Thunder published the book under his pen name Michael Dalton. But that’s another story. –danjerjohn. (c)2006 by Daniel J. Johnson. This story first ran in the Daily Herald, February 2006.