Another member of the Greatest Generation passed away — on October 29. My father, Ivan D. Thunder, was born in September 1913 in San Francisco, the son of an Irish immigrant and the daughter of an Irish immigrant surgeon. His extended family had all survived the Earthquake of 1906. He grew up in the Pacific Heights section of the city. He and his brothers played on the grounds of the Presidio and among the remains of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. As a 12 year old, he disobeyed his parents and stayed awake listening to the radio report of Lindbergh’s flight. He was a Boy Scout when Scouting was new (founded 1910) and a member of Maryknoll Juniors when that society of Catholic priests had just been formed to send men to China. He was tall and lied about his age when he was 14, taking a summer job aboard a San Francisco-Hawaii steamer. (One of his favorite books was Richard Henry Dana, Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast (1840).) About 15 years ago, he wrote a memoir of his freshman year at Bellarmine Prep, founded in 1851, and sent it to the school.
In 1929 his family relocated to Chicago. A sister, the eldest of the family, married on the Saturday after the Stock Market Crash. My father attended Loyola Academy (Class of ’32) which, at the time, was adjacent to Loyola University. He played football and his team scrimmaged against the college team. Maybe that’s when he first started talking about attending the College of Hard Knocks.
He was the only one of his siblings to attend college. He dreamt of becoming a civil engineer and succeeded. During the Depression he worked his way for five years through the four-year program at Armour Tech, founded in 1893 and now the Illinois Institute of Technology, graduating in 1937. Upon graduation, he could not find a job and was the obvious choice among family members to care for his ill mother, who died in March 1938 at the age of 63.
A couple of years later, he was at work for the Panama Canal, when the United States entered World War II. He later joined the United States Navy and was a lieutenant (jg) with the 133rd Naval Construction Battalion (CBs or SeaBees). He had leave in Chicago in 1943, when he made a call to the Hughes’ residence, seeking a date. The devout Catholic mother answered. He apologized that he was seeking a date with her daughter on Good Friday but that he was only in town for the one day. She replied that her daughter was engaged to be married. Not deterred, he asked for another daughter, Rosemary, whom he had seen a few times over the years but had never met. A short time later, Rosemary with her chaperone-sister Constance, traveled by train to Williamsburg, Virginia. Ivan and Rosemary were married six months after their first date. His two brothers, also in uniform, were able to make the wedding in Chicago. Indeed, one brother, Joe, decided that, since the entire family was there, he and his Chicago area girlfriend would marry on the following Monday.
Ivan landed on Iwo Jima on D-Day + 1. He was nearly killed three times, including during the all-night artillery barrage by the Japanese while he was in a foxhole on the beach. His battalion had the most casualties of any CB battalion during the war. The battalion started building airstrips before the island was declared secure.
He returned to the States on the USS Yorktown. On the deck during that long voyage, he tossed the football with fellow officer Jim Backus, later of Gilligan’s Island and Mr. Magoo fame. Ivan arrived in Chicago just in time for Christmas, 1945, and saw a daughter he had never seen, born September 1944.
After the war, housing was short. He and Rosemary and their child moved in with Rosemary’s sister, Luella, and her husband, John Morrissey, who had served as an Army Intelligence officer. By the time each couple had two children, Morrissey would talk of “4 adults, 4 kids, 4 rooms, $40 a month.”
Ivan and Rosemary lived in Chicago, Park Ridge Illinois (Hilary Clinton’s hometown), San Francisco, Dayton, Pittsburgh, and Burlington, Ontario. They raised seven children. He told me once that he wanted to ensure that each of his five daughters acquired the skills necessary to support themselves.
As a structural engineer, he built America: roads, bridges, dams, power plants, steel-making plants, and so much more. The only time he was let go from a job — in an occupation that was always subject to business cycles — he was 59. He found work within a few months with Sargent & Lundy Engineers from which he retired in 1984 at age 72.
When my wife Ann and I were living in Washington, D.C., my parents came to town for our Nation’s Bicentennial and we watched the fireworks sitting by the Iwo Jima Memorial, 31 years after the battle. In 2006, we accompanied him on his visit to the USS Yorktown in Charleston and he showed us where he had slept in the forward quarters.
Over the past 15 years, Ivan Thunder began communicating in detail about his war experience. He spoke to students at every level, including Navy ROTC students at Notre Dame in April 2007. He wrote a book about his life up to the day he landed at Iwo Jima (Her Last Letter under the pseudonym Michael Dalton) and wrote a second book about Iwo Jima and the Pacific War. Family members escorted him to a number of annual reunions since 2003 of Iwo Jima veterans.
His life extended for 41% of the life of this Republic (97 of its 234 years). A few years ago, he told me that he should never have voted for FDR, Kennedy, Johnson — because the Democrats were bringing this country to ruin.
His favorite book was Tale of Two Cities. (We were sending him a transcript of the Diane Rehm Show from last week on this book when he died.) His favorite musical was Sigmund Romberg’s The Desert Song, which he saw on stage in San Francisco in the 1920s soon after its initial production. He did not see it on stage again until I escorted him to its staging in Milwaukee in 1992.
A few years ago, I asked my father what sort of movies he liked. He replied movies about honor, truth, duty, romantic love and devotion, fidelity — and then he rattled off the names of a number of movies released over the decades, which we bought him for his birthdays and Christmases. The sort of movies he described in fact described the sort of man he was. He had shown deep and abiding devotion to his mother, to his wife (of 61 years until her death in 2004), to his children, to his fellow sailors, and to his country. He had a great fondness for California where he had spent the first 15 years of his life. I call him our family’s, and our country’s, California Redwood, tall and true.