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The fighting 'Georgia Boy'
Springfield's Thompson recalls World War II stint in U.S. Navy
Kelly Thompson works the controls of a gun aboard the USS Laffey at Patriots Point in South Carolina in 2012. The gun is similar to the one he manned on the USS Paul G. Baker.
There was too much water. I kissed the dirt when I got home.
Kelly Thompson

SPRINGFIELD —  The flames of feistiness that burned within 94-year-old Kelly Thompson when he was a young sailor remain pretty hot. His sense of humor still flares regularly.

"I got in a lot of fights and drank a lot of beer," Thompson recently joked while recalling his stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He was drafted in 1943 and served until April 1946.

The gunnery mate's progression through the ranks was interrupted by his penchant for fun. He exited the Navy as a seaman first class. 

"I got busted down," he said. "They gave us kind of a party on the beach. They gave us beer, too, so what did they expect?"

Thompson, a longtime Springfield resident, was born and raised on a farm in nearby Screven County. He doesn't talk much about his Navy days when he was widely known as "Georgia Boy."

"There are certain things that he's never told me," said Angie Gnann, Thompson's daughter.

Norfolk Naval Station, Va., was Thompson's first military stop. He worked in the mess hall for three months before being sent to Naval Base San Diego for training.

Eventually, he was assigned to the USS Paul G. Baker, a new Buckley-class destroyer. He was aboard when it launched March 12, 1944.

Thompson's ship, which was 306 feet long and weighed 1,740 tons fully loaded, got off to a difficult start. It carried 198 men, including 15 officers.

"All them boys were throwing up," Thompson said with a chuckle. "When we got to the Golden Gate, all of them were puking."

Thompson had an iron stomach but even it was challenged near the Philippines. He and his shipmates endured a typhoon for three days.

The rough sea tossed the ship violently, turning it so that its mast was occasionally pointed horizontally instead of straight up.

Thompson volunteered to remain on deck during the storm while many sailors went below to battle seasickness.

The USS Paul G. Baker featured a popular four-legged occupant who helped pass the time when danger wasn't near. It was a dog named Rusty. The canine earned his name because he coat was always orange because of corrosion on the ship.

"Everybody fed and petted Rusty because it kind of kept the morale up," Thompson said. "When you don't have much, it doesn't take much to make you happy."

Unfortunately, Rusty was died after falling into a manhole.

"Most all ships had a dog or cat on them," Thompson remembered.

Danger was a frequent visitor. Kamikaze pilots were always a worry.

"We had one fly around and around until he fell in the ocean," Thompson said. "He got chicken, I guess."

On May 12, 1945, the USS Paul G. Baker opened fire on a pair of suicide planes. She aided in downing one of them but the other hit the side of the ship.

One month later, a low-flying plane made a dive on Lindenwald, shifted the attack to Thompson's ship, the took aim at a merchant ship. The USS Paul G. Baker's gunners dropped the aircraft 50 feet from its final target.

The attacks continued to be heavy and frequent during the closing months of the war in 1945.  Thompson was relieved to hear it was over. It was announced via a speaker on the ship.

"We were between Japan and Okinawa," he said

 After returning home, Thompson made a surprising discovery. His brother, the U.S. Army's Arthur Winson "Wink" Thompson, was on a ship the USS Paul G. Baker escorted to the Philippines.

Thompson's other brother, John G. Thompson Jr., and a cousin, Bobby Pye, also fought in World War II, as did many of his friends.

A military career never entered Thompson's mind.

"I was ready to get back home," he said emphatically. "There was too much water. I kissed the dirt when I got home."

Thompson continues to downplay his contributions to America's war effort even though one of the walls in his house features several medals and ribbons, including two battle stars. 

After being asked what he did to receive one of the medals, Thompson replied, "I don't know. Fighting, I guess!"