Military Order of the Purple Heart

Texas Capital Chapter 1919 Austin, Texas



1922 - 2013






Patriot, Chapter 1919

 Air Force, WWII, Europe


Thomas W. Matthews was born in 1922 in Luling, Texas.  He grew up on a farm and as a student he was active in the Future Farmers of America.  He graduated from Luling High School in 1939 and then got a job at the Luling Demonstration Foundation Farm where he worked rotating shifts between the dairy, poultry and livestock demonstration units.  After just a few months there, he found the $17 monthly pay just wasn’t enough to live on, even with room and board furnished, so he went to San Antonio and went to work for Rath Meatpacking Company.  He had been with the Rath company for about a year and a half when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.


Tom volunteered for Aviation Cadet Training, was quickly accepted, and he entered active duty in March 1942.  He then went through a rapid succession of aviation training courses during the next year. He went through Pre-Flight at Lackland Airfield in San Antonio; Primary Flight School at Sikeston, Missouri; Basic Flight School at Randolph Field in San Antonio; and finally, Advanced Flight School at Ellington Field in Houston, where he qualified as a multi-engine pilot on the twin engine AT-14 and AT-15 trainers.  He received his pilot’s wings and a commission to second lieutenant on February 11, 1943.


His first assignment was to the Replacement Training Unit at Greenville Army Airfield, Greenville, South Carolina where he served for a little less than a year as an instructor pilot.  He then was assigned as the pilot of a B-25 bomber crew that was assembled, trained and prepared for overseas deployment.  On March 15, 1944, Thomas Matthews departed the U.S. from Newark, New Jersey on a four-engine transport plane bound for Casablanca, Morocco, in North Africa.  From there he staged up into Italy, arriving at Salerno Army Airfield just south of Pompeii, and reported in to his new unit, the 321st Bomb Group, 57th Bomb Wing, 12th Army Air Force, where he was further assigned to the 448th Bomb Squadron.  Less than a week after he arrived, the Mount Vesuvius volcano erupted on March 22, 1944 and Tom says it was spectacular.  Some of the flyers unwisely flew through the ash cloud and their clogged air filters and engine damage resulted in strict orders being issued to avoid such sightseeing excursions.


The 57th Bomb Wing did not keep newly arrived trained crews intact, but integrated individual crewmembers in with experienced crews.  Lieutenant Matthews flew as copilot of an aircraft for his first four or five bombing missions before he was assigned as pilot of his own B-25 “Mitchell” bomber.  On April 23, 1944 the wing was moved to the island of Corsica and continued their bombing missions without letup.  Tom’s 321st Bomb Group was near Solenzara while their sister group, the 340th was outside Alesani.  Tom says, “Most of Corsica is mountainous. We could only fly from a narrow strip of flat coastal plains that ran down the length of the eastern part of the island so that’s where the airstrips had to be.  Our squadrons and groups were packed tightly together with planes parked wing tip to wing tip and with everyone living in dense tent encampments.  We greatly outnumbered the enemy by this time and never gave any thought about our vulnerability to attack from the Luftwaffe.  Compared to us they didn’t have much, but on the night of May 13, 1944 the German bombers came on a surprise raid with all they could muster and they did a tremendous amount of damage.  The Alesani and Poretta airfields were hardest hit and the 340th Bomb Group sustained the heaviest losses, with most of their aircraft destroyed or damaged and 50 percent of their personnel killed or wounded.” (Editor’s note:  Chapter 1919’s Patriot Penny “Loss” Carroll was in the 340th Bomb Group and he was wounded in this raid). “The 321st Group did not sustain serious losses, but after that, all the airfields on the island dispersed the parking of their planes and safe separation distance was maintained with all the living quarters and facilities.”


Tom had left the Rath Meatpacking Company in San Antonio when he enlisted and he was only one among many of their employees who left them to go off and fight the war.  Rath tried to be supportive and encouraging of all their former employees in uniform.  Tom received several letters and gift packages from the company when he was in overseas.  That was not only a big morale booster for him at the time, but he still fondly remembers those caring acts of kindness sixty years ago and highly regards Rath for what they did in WWII.


On May 31, 1944 Lt Tom Matthews flew his most memorable mission of the war, following which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart.  An article was published about Tom’s mission in the Austin American edition of February 8, 1945.  It included these excerpts, “The Luling pilot…was flying with his unit in an attack on a road block at Subiaco, Italy when the B-25 formation encountered heavy enemy anti-aircraft fire before reaching the target that caused considerable damage to several of the bombers…  Lt Matthews’ bomber was hit in one engine by the anti-aircraft fire, knocking it out.  With damages already sustained to his hydraulic system, control cables and his fuel tanks leaking badly, he was forced to leave the formation and head for the nearest friendly territory.”  Tom now adds a few details that are inserted here with the Austin newspaper’s original account which continues.  Neither the bombardier, nor the pilot, were able to jettison the bomb load because of the extensive damage to those controls.  The aircraft was losing altitude rapidly so Tom ordered his crew to jump, intending to follow them as soon as they had all safely parachuted out.  Most quickly did so, but the radio gunner had a shattered leg and could not jump, and the other gunner who was providing aid refused to abandon him.  Although there was little hope of survival of crash landing in such a badly crippled aircraft still carrying a full load of bombs, Tom determined to stay at the controls and not to abandon his two crewmen to certain death.  Despite his own wounds to his left arm from flak fragments, he guided the plane down.  Luckily, they happened to reach an emergency landing field just as the aircraft ran out of altitude, and Tom brought it straight in with no hydraulics, no wheels and no flaps.  The bomb-laden plane careened down the strip and came to a jolting halt without further injury to Lt Matthews or the two gunners.


The following week, and only two days after liberation of the city, 12th Air Force Headquarters had Tom Matthews flown to Rome where the Public Affairs Office made a tape recording of his account of the mission for the purpose of being used in the United States for war bond drives and public release.  Tom was given his own copy of the recording.  He still has it today and has played it many times when appearing as a guest speaker in public schools, and veterans and civic organizations.


He was promoted to First Lieutenant in June 1944.  By the time the war ended in Europe, Lt Thomas Matthews had flown combat missions in the Balkans, Italy and Southern France while participating in the Rome-Arno, North Apennines, Po Valley, Southern France and Rhineland Campaigns.  When it was his turn to depart for home, September 20, 1945, he returned to the United States with awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross and 9 Oak Leaf Clusters on his Air Medal, together with his Purple Heart, Victory Medal, American Theater Campaign Medal, Distinguished Unit Badge and an EAME Campaign Medal with 6 Bronze Service Stars.  However, he was not immediately discharged during the demobilization.  He was assigned to Enid Army Airfield, Enid, Oklahoma where he served as an Instructor Pilot on B-25 bombers and   C-47 aircraft for another year.


Finally, he was discharged at the Separation Center in Fort Sam Houston, Texas on September 7, 1946, and immediately enrolled as a student at Texas A&M under the     G.I. Bill.  After five years at College Station, Tom Matthews graduated as a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine.


He then returned home to Luling, opened for business as a veterinarian, and worked a very long career there.  He also served in the Air Force Reserve, finally retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1982.  Officially, Tom retired from his veterinary practice in 1987.   But, he didn’t move away and, because family and friends still know how to find him, he is sometimes called on to do some additional work.


When asked to comment on the novel, later made into a movie, “Catch 22,” which focused on the combat crews of Tom’s 57th Bomb Wing stationed on Corsica.  He had this to say, “I didn’t like the movie.  The book was unusual in that it was all about the men’s emotions and that really wasn’t a big part of our lives at the time.  The central theme of “Catch 22,” was that you had to be crazy to fly combat missions, but the catch was, you couldn’t get relieved from duty by claiming to be crazy because making that claim proved that you were not.”


Having just celebrated his 85th birthday at this writing, he remains active with his local Volunteer Fire Department, which he had helped organize, and still answers the call to help fight grass fires and such.  He is also involved with his local American Legion Post and their current project of trying to obtain an aircraft for display on the post grounds.  Chapter 1919, Military Order of the Purple Heart proudly salutes Patriot Thomas W. Matthews, who has been a member for the past seven years. Thomas W. Matthews died July 15, 2013 at the age of 90.





Crewman Ted Kirk seated in Tom Matthews B-25 in Corsica.


Ted and Tom served together and Ted's family provided the above photo after finding Ted's article on this site.







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