In July 1941, he enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps, but soon requested and received a transfer to the United States Marine Corps in which many of his friends had volunteered. His enlistment was placed with the Marine Forces Reserve and he began on active service with the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment which was part of the newly-formed 3rd Marine Division.
On November 1, 1943, 1/3 Marines and the 3rd Marine Division stormed ashore on Bougainville for their first combat action of the war. Six days later, the Japanese began an ultimately unsuccessful counter-attack that is known today as the Battle of Koromokina Lagoon.
Herbert Thomas, now a Sergeant and an infantry squad leader, led his Marines against several Japanese machine gun positions, destroying two. He positioned the squad to assault a third; the explosion of the grenade he would throw would be the signal to rush the enemy.
Sergeant Thomas pulled the grenade's pin, hurled it towards the enemy, and watched as it struck jungle foliage and bounced back amongst his Marines...
From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (T-Z):
|Photo from Military Times' Hall of Valor|
Citation: For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry above and beyond the call of duty while serving with the 3d Marines, 3d Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces during the battle at the Koromokina River, Bougainville Islands, Solomon Islands, on 7 November 1943. Although several of his men were struck by enemy bullets as he led his squad through dense jungle undergrowth in the face of severe hostile machinegun fire, Sgt. Thomas and his group fearlessly pressed forward into the center of the Japanese position and destroyed the crews of 2 machineguns by accurate rifle fire and grenades. Discovering a third gun more difficult to approach, he carefully placed his men closely around him in strategic positions from which they were to charge after he had thrown a grenade into the emplacement. When the grenade struck vines and fell back into the midst of the group, Sgt. Thomas deliberately flung himself upon it to smother the explosion, valiantly sacrificing his life for his comrades. Inspired by his selfless action, his men unhesitatingly charged the enemy machinegun and, with fierce determination, killed the crew and several other nearby-defenders. The splendid initiative and extremely heroic conduct of Sgt. Thomas in carrying out his prompt decision with full knowledge of his fate reflect great credit upon himself and the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
Sergeant Thomas was initially buried in a US Military Cemetery on Bougainville. The Medal of Honor recipient's remains were repatriated to the United States and he has rested in peace at the Sunset Memorial Park in South Charleston, West Virginia since June 19, 1948.
On May 29, 1945, the United States Navy accepted the Gearing-class destroyer USS Herbert J. Thomas (DD-833) into commission. The ship served with the Pacific Fleet during the occupation of Japan and Korea following World War II and during both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. She was decommissioned on December 4, 1970 and spent about four years stored until being sold to the Republic of China (Taiwanese) Navy. She continued to sail as the ROCS Han Yang (DDG-915) until 1999 when the vessel was sunk as an artificial reef.
In 1989, Herbert Thomas was inducted into the Virginia Tech Sports Hall of Fame.
1st Battalion 3rd Marines is stationed today at Marine Corps Base Hawaii and is still part of the modern 3rd Marine Division.