Mike Francis | The Oregonian
It’s no straight line from the wretched scene in an Austrian forest 67 years ago to a musical gala next month at Oregon Golf Club, but James Thayer has walked it.
And the threads that spin from a long life well-lived will be drawn together May 18 when friends, family and supporters celebrate the service of the 90-year-old retired general while raising money to renovate the Oregon Military Museum at Camp Withycombe in Clackamas.
“The All-Star Salute to the Oregon Military” will center on Thayer’s service as a soldier and his life beyond. When the museum reopens in 2014 or so, it will include artifacts from the Indian Wars to Operation Enduring Freedom, and it will bear Thayer’s name. (Details below)
The kickoff of the two-year, $6.5 million capital campaign will feature numerous Oregon celebrities, from golfer and master of ceremonies Peter Jacobsen to former Gov. Ted Kulongoski to Kiss guitarist Tommy Thayer, who happens to be one of the honoree’s sons.
Let’s follow that thread:
Gene Simmons, left, and Tommy Thayer make up half of the rock band Kiss.
Kiss founder and flamboyant frontman Gene Simmons is on the phone from Los Angeles.
“I owe a debt of gratitude to Gen. Thayer,” he says. Meeting him is “a humbling experience. You’re in the presence of greatness.”
It’s that wretched scene in the forest that makes Simmons talk like this. The two men — the courtly and soft-spoken Oregonian and the brash and controversial Jewish showman — are bound together by more than Tommy Thayer’s guitar strings.
Gene Simmons was born in Israel in 1949 as Chaim Witz. His mother, who reared him by herself after his father left when he was 5, survived a death camp.
The story of Flora Klein is worth a book in itself, but she doesn’t talk much about it. She did tell Gene that, when she was 14, she watched her mother walk with her grandmother into a gas chamber. Flora’s mother didn’t want her own mother to die alone, she explained. Flora survived because the wife of the German camp commandant appreciated her skills as a hairstylist and makeup artist and made sure she had scraps of food.
Where was the camp? Possibly it was the one that the platoon of U.S. soldiers, led by 2nd Lt. James B. Thayer, stumbled across on that day in early May 1945.
The camp was called Gunskirchen and it was one of the hastily built satellite camps in northern Austria, full of Jews from Eastern Europe, especially Hungary. Thayer and his men had no idea it was there.
Their job was to hunt for an ammunition dump. They had roamed the countryside with no success, and Thayer’s sergeant suggested they check down an empty forest road. They found something unimaginable.
The trail was filled with the dead and dying. Emaciated people. Three or four thousand of them. People who had straggled out of the recently abandoned camp, only to collapse within sight of it. A stench filled the air. To this day, James Thayer finds it hard to talk about.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he says quietly. “I got on the radio and said, ‘We need all the help we can get, right away.’
“It was a real death camp.”
The Americans had no extra supplies, but gave what they had to the suffering. It was too much. They watched, horrified, as a former prisoner died trying to choke down a ration.
View full sizeU.S. Army
Online, you can find reprints of a booklet published by the U.S. Army after that horrid day in the forest. Search for “liberation gunskirchen lager” and you will read firsthand accounts of soldiers who were determined the world remember the atrocity. A sample:
“As we entered the camp, the living skeletons still able to walk crowded around us and, though we wanted to drive farther into the place, the milling, pressing crowd wouldn’t let us. It is not an exaggeration to say that almost every inmate was insane with hunger. Just the sight of an American brought cheers, groans and shrieks. People crowded around to touch an American, to touch the jeep, to kiss our arms — perhaps just to make sure that it was true. The people who couldn’t walk crawled out toward our jeep. Those who couldn’t even crawl propped themselves up on an elbow, and somehow, through all their pain and suffering, revealed through their eyes the gratitude, the joy they felt at the arrival of Americans.”
View full sizeCourtesy of the Thayer family
First Lt. James Thayer in Gunzburg, Bavaria, Germany in the summer of 1945, after V-E Day.
Flora Klein survived a place like this. Simmons thinks it might have been Gunskirchen, based on the records he found at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. He pored through the names in the Nazi camp records and found that his mother and father had been put on trains and moved — somewhere. He doesn’t know exactly where or why. Gunskirchen was one of about 50 satellites of the Nazis’ Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria and southern Germany.
James Thayer says he once gave Simmons an account of his platoon’s work on that day at Gunskirchen. Simmons says he’s read it. And it’s a big reason why he says he owes a debt of gratitude to the man.
The Thayer kids — Jim Jr., John, Tommy, Michael and Anne — grew up knowing little of all this. Tommy Thayer, who was born in 1960 and grew up in Beaverton, said it’s only been in the past 15 or so years that his father has opened up about his experiences in World War II.
“I really kind of wanted to forget everything,” Jim Sr. says. In the days before stumbling upon Gunskirchen, his 16-man platoon ran into a larger squad of SS troops. It was a fight for survival. The Americans killed 31 of the Austrians and Germans that day. “It affected me, killing people.”
But he said his life changed in 1992, when he was on a tour of concentration camps organized by the U.S. Holocaust Council. At the airport in Vienna, a Jewish man named Wolfe Finkelman identified him. He said he was 14 when the Americans arrived at Gunskirchen. He told Thayer he would have been dead if they had come 24 hours later.
“That changed my life,” Thayer says today.
Even without a clear picture of their father’s past, lives in the household headed by Jim Sr. and Patricia, married now for 58 years, were full. The kids were busy and “Pat was so great,” says Jim Sr.
The kids didn’t really grow up as military brats because their father had become an officer in the Army Reserves, based in Vancouver. After leaving the Reserves as a full colonel, he was promoted to brigadier general and commander of the Oregon State Defense Force. He was named the civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army. He ran his office supply business, the J. Thayer Co. He served as chairman or board member at the Port of Portland, Knappton Corp., Tuality Healthcare, the World Affairs Council, GTE, Reed College, the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Commission, the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, the Oregon Graduate Institute, the Boys and Girls Aid Society and a dozen other organizations. He and his family lived a postwar life deeply rooted in the community.
Now the Thayer boys — Anne has died — are all pitching in to make the May 18 event a success. Tommy, who sits on the board of trustees for Pacific University, is in charge of the program and has assembled the talent and celebrity guests. Mike picked the Oregon Golf Club venue and is in charge of food and beverages. John, who owns J. Thayer Company, is producing a pair of videos that will be shown and is printing some collateral materials. Jim Jr. is helping develop the auction. “We are all involved with the fundraising effort,” says John.
“My sons are unbelievable,” Jim Thayer Sr. says. “It’s unbelievable how enthusiastic they are to make this thing work.”
Many years from now, when a visitor arrives at the Gen. James Thayer Oregon Military Museum on its renovated grounds at Camp Withycombe, the remembering might well begin with the name of the veteran above the door.