No. 17465 • 7 Feb 1927 – 27 Dec 1983
Died in Fort Walton Beach, FL
Interred in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA
Ernest Collins Thomas grew up in Leavenworth, KS, and entered West Point through the United States Military Academy Preparatory School. If anyone ever made the demands of the Academy look easy, Ernie was that person. Eternally optimistic, handsome, bright, and charismatic to boot, he could not help but impress his fellow cadets and the faculty and charm the ladies. His social skills were borne out by his selection as company hop representative for four years, culminating in his elevation to chairman of the Corps Hop Committee in his first class year. Ernie was a gifted athlete in all pursuits save swimming. In this endeavor, Ernie, a product of the Great Plains, demonstrated a marked talent for sinking to the bottom of the pool. This was so even during his senior year, after four years of remedial swimming instruction.
As a new plebe, Ernie promptly recognized all of the benefits of dining at ease on steak at a Corps Squad training table. He tried out for football, qualified as a quarterback, won his numerals, and enjoyed his meals. Ernie could sing, a talent he amply demonstrated in the mandatory tryouts for the Chapel Choir. His Vaughan Monroe like crooning gained him immediate acceptance to his second "Corps Squad team.' Ernie breezed through the academic program; indeed, he was unfazed even when Russian was thrust on him as his foreign language study "of choice."
Where Ernie really excelled, however, was in any and all matters pertaining to leadership. Every rating he received remarked that he was destined for a position of high prestige and responsibility in the cadet chain of command as a First Classman. This was so until his "cow' year, when, during an exchange trip at the Naval Academy, his freespirited sense of adventure took over and he joined his midshipmen roommates in going "over the wall" after Taps. He was caught and "slugged" for his offense. Consequently, he had to settle for the rank of cadet lieutenant and battalion adjutant. He took this setback in his typically good spirit. As a parting gesture, Ernie's classmates elected him class treasurer. Despite his cool demeanor, Ernie could be deadly serious when it was called for, especially when embracing and championing West Points ideals. Upon graduation, he entered the Air Force, eager to apply all that he had learned at his alma mater in a career that promised high adventure and the opportunity to serve his country.
Ernie's Air Force career followed two separate paths; the early path focused on flying, the other on research and development. After receiving his pilot wings at Enid AFB, OK, he reported for B 29 combat training at Randolph AFB, TX, and Lake Charles AFB, LA, followed by assignment to the 19th Bombardment Group on Okinawa during the Korean War. Flying assignments in California and Texas were next, prior to transition training in the B 47 Stratojet then the Air Force's primary jet bomber and eventual B 47 duty with Strategic Air Command at Mountain Home AFB, ID.
The shift to the second phase of his career was by triggered by attendance at the University of Washington, where he earned a master's degree in Aerospace Science in 1960. This degree led to a most welcome assignment as an instructor in the Ordnance Department at West Point during 1960 63. In 1964 Ernie' s life and career path then shifted further with his marriage to Judy, and multiple assignments that focused on research and development in the Washington, DC area. These assignments centered on duty with the Air Force Systems Command. Ernie and Judy's prolonged stay in Washington provided welcome stability, in a city of vitality and interest, and put them in contact with old friends. In 1968, this bliss was interrupted for a year when Ernie served in Viet Nam at Headquarters, Seventh Air Force, Saigon, where he was engaged in establishing requirements for and evaluating weapons systems. To add zest to this work, the assignment was preceded by a stint at the jungle survival school in the Philippines.
In 1972, the Thomas family departed the Washington area for Patrick AFB, FL, where Ernie became involved in the B 1/cruise missile business. Still later, at Eglin AFB, FL, he returned to an earlier pursuit: development of conventional munitions. During this stay, Ernie and Judy acquired a beautiful waterfront home at Fort Walton Beach, where they enjoyed the varied Gulf Coast activities, and Judy opened a successful real estate business. In 1979, upon his retirement as a colonel, Ernie accepted a position with a small firm engaged in consulting and representing several area companies.
Unfortunately, this idyllic retirement life was cut short for Judy and Ernie when he became ill and passed away in 1983. Ernie is missed, not only by his wife but also by his many friends and classmates. We will always remember him with fondness and regret that he left us so soon.