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From the US Army... to the KISS Army?

Brig. Gen. (Ret.) James B. Thayer, BS ’47’s unit in the Lake Oswego retirement community he now calls home looks almost exactly as you’d imagine the apartment of a decorated war hero would look.

Almost.

A large American flag hangs proudly behind his recliner. Old war medals adorn a side table, atop which sit two statuettes of bald eagles. On his walls hang various images of his time in the military, including a photo of him leading his troops through the German town of Günzburg on VE Day; amidst the military photos on his wall is the plaque he received in 2005 when he was honored with the UOAA’s Distinguished Alumni Award.

It is a very fitting unit for a Silver Star and Bronze Star recipient who liberated a major death camp during World War II before moving on to an award-winning civic and professional career while also raising five children, three of whom also attended the UO.

A very regal unit, in fact, which at first glance makes the book on his coffee table about legendary rock band KISS just that little more unusual.

But “unusual” is par for the course for the endlessly self-deprecating Brigadier General, who says he never thought he was very outstanding, and figures the UOAA must have been mistaken to bestow upon him the same honor previously awarded to Nobel Prize winner Walter Brattain, MA ’26; legendary track coach and NIKE cofounder Bill Bowerman, BS ’34, MEd ’53; NIKE cofounder Phil Knight, BBA ’59; film producer and cofounder of Academy Award-winning Merchant Ivory Productions James Ivory, BA ’51; author and counterculture figure Ken Kesey, BS ’57; and legendary politician Edith Green, BS ’40, who introduced the bills that led to the Equal Pay Act and Title IX.

But while Coach Bowerman could teach an athlete to run faster, he never saved 15,000 lives by liberating a Nazi death camp like James Thayer did. And while Walter Brattain may have invented the transistor, his son never performed on stage in front of tens of thousands of people like Thayer’s son Tommy, lead guitarist for KISS, does on a regular basis.

That makes the KISS book only a little less unusual, but that only tells half the story of the Brigadier General’s link to the band.

James Thayer was born in 1922, the year U.S. President Warren G. Harding introduced the first radio to the White House, construction began on Yankee Stadium, and the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated.

His parents divorced when he was four, and his grandparents raised him on their farm in Carlton, Oregon, just north of McMinnville. The editor of the Carlton High School newspaper, he attended the Oregon High School Press Conference at the UO during his junior year, and to his surprise was elected association president.

“What a green pea at the time,” Thayer recalled. “I was really surprised that they elected me president. Then, because of the success of our little newspaper, they gave me a scholarship. Without it, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”

Thayer had a scholarship offer to attend Linfield College, but with his UO scholarship in hand, instead moved to Eugene and enrolled in the School of Journalism and Communication. He became the advertising manager of the Oregon Daily Emerald, taking home the princely sum of $35 per month for his work.

Thayer’s world changed forever on the morning of December 7, 1941, though, when the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II.

“You were nervous all the time about being called up,” he said. “Those who didn’t go to college were drafted. Everybody around you was nervous about someone coming back or leaving.

“But,” he added with a laugh, “With everybody leaving, there were more girls for us to chase.”

Thayer, a descendant of “The Father of West Point,” Sylvanus Thayer, enlisted in the army as a buck private at the end of his sophomore year, and was soon selected to go to Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning in Georgia. He was commissioned a Second Lieutenant on October 3, 1944, and joined the 71st Infantry Division’s mine platoon. Fourteen days at sea en route to Europe soon followed, but by the time the platoon reached Normandy, the Germans were already retreating.

The platoon headed to the Maginot Line to clear mines, and found them to be no challenge at all—due as much to the mines’ age as to Thayer’s platoon’s skill.

“They were pretty old,” Thayer said. “The French had put them in in 1922, and we could walk through them and not get blown up—but I didn’t try that.”

Thayer was soon named a reconnaissance platoon leader, and set up a school to teach fellow soldiers how to clear minefields. The regimental commander held meetings that lasted until midnight, where he disseminated intelligence information about what the platoon could expect the following day.

“My job was to go out every morning with my 16 guys, two half-tracks, and a jeep, until we got shot at,” he said. “Then we’d report back where the enemy was. It was a joke at the time, they’d report back to me that the Germans were just trying to slow us down.”

Thayer’s war—and life—almost ended in the late spring of 1945, when his platoon ambushed a number of SS troops making their final stand outside a town in Austria. Thayer wanted the Germans to surrender, but their major demanded someone of equal rank to negotiate with. While Thayer was buying his platoon time, his sergeant spotted a hand grenade hanging around the major’s neck—the major wasn’t going down without taking Thayer with him. The sergeant cut the grenade loose and threw it away, though that did not do much to lessen the immediate danger. Thayer said he was prepared to burn the town down; the major barked out an order in response, and his troops stormed out of the buildings. In the ensuing firefight 31 Nazis were claimed to have been killed, a number Thayer doesn’t quite believe despite that many names being written on a cross marking the location of the battle. What Thayer does know for certain is that after the firefight, his platoon was able to round up and accept the surrender of a further 800 German soldiers who had been in the town. He received a Silver Star, but—not for the first or last time—says he didn’t deserve the recognition.

“My main motive wasn’t to kill other people; it was to save my soldiers from being killed,” he said. “I didn’t even give the order in the ambush—my guys had .50 caliber machine guns and mowed the SSers down without having to have the order given.

“My battalion came and saved my ass.”

Days later, on May 4, 1945—three days before the German surrender, and two months before the Manhattan Project detonated its first nuclear device 6,000 miles away in New Mexico while preparing for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—Thayer’s reconnaissance platoon was in Austria, looking for an ammunition dump the Nazis were reportedly building up in advance of one final push. Find the dump, and the German advance would be effectively over before it began. What they found, however, was more than they ever expected.

“Our maps weren’t very good, so we never did find it,” Thayer said. “My sergeant said we should look in the forest, so we went in and ran into a horrible mess.”

The horrible mess was the Gunskirchen Lager death camp, home to 15,000 prisoners who had been abandoned by the Nazis who had fled days earlier. Constructed in 1944, the camp was designed to hold several hundred people. When it opened, several thousand prisoners, many of them members of Hungary’s intellectual community, were sent there on death marches, and the numbers just kept growing. Prisoners who survived the march over a mountain pass to the camp during the Austrian winter were given one lump of sugar each, and one loaf of bread to share between seven.

“We didn’t know what to do,” Thayer said. “There were three- or four-thousand lying dead, mainly from starvation and disease. The guards had left two or three days before we got there. We gave them some food and they died on the spot, they choked. It was so terrible. I felt so helpless. I radioed and said we needed all the help we could get. We couldn’t even drive into the camp; there were so many dead bodies.”

The Seventy-First Came… to Gunskirchen Lager
, a pamphlet written by soldiers in the 71st Division who helped Thayer liberate the death camp, illustrated the deplorable conditions in which the prisoners were forced to live.

“It is practically impossible to describe in decent or printable words the state of degradation in which the German guards had permitted the camp to fall,” wrote Major Cameron Coffman, the division’s Public Relations Officer. “Located in a dense patch of pine trees, well-hidden from the main highway as well as from the air, the site was well-suited for the slimy, vermin-infested living conditions that existed there. To call the camp a pig sty would be doing injustice to a self-respecting pig.”

“The thousands of prisoners had been crammed into a few low, one-story, frame buildings with sloppy, muddy floors,” added Captain J.D. Pletcher. “Those who were able had come out of the buildings, but there were hundreds left in them—the dead, the near-dead, and those too weak to move. Sometimes, my guide said, it was so crowded in the buildings that people slept three-deep on the floor, one on top of the other. Often, a man would awake in the morning and find the person under him dead. Too weak to move even the pathetically light bodies of their comrades, the living continued sleeping on them.”

As the head of the reconnaissance platoon that found the camp, Thayer received credit for its discovery and liberation, but he deflects the praise, saying, “I was just lucky to find the thing.” The ambush and the discovery of the camp stayed with him for years after that though, and it was almost half a century before he began to find peace with what he had experienced.

“The Holocaust Council had me come back to represent them on a tour of cemeteries and ghettos with the survivors,” he said. “There were certain things that I didn’t want to do, because I felt I didn’t deserve it. Other people felt otherwise. But I went, and that was one of the turning points of my life.”

Thayer flew to Vienna, where Simon Wiesenthal—the famed “Nazi Hunter”—was due to meet him. Thayer was representing the Secretary of Defense, and had received a recognition of honor from the Austrian government for his role in the liberation of the camp, yet he still felt troubled, and was uncomfortable with the fact that he had killed so many people during the war.

“At the airport I was standing by myself,” he said. “I was sad, because it had always hung with me, killing those people. I never could buy it. But this guy came up to me and said, ‘I want you to know something. My name is Wolfe Finkleman, and if you hadn’t come in when you did I wouldn’t be standing here next to you, because I would’ve been dead within 24 hours. I was only 14 at the time.’

“At that time I figured out maybe we’d saved six million people. It took me that long to realize maybe we’d done something to help.”

That was in 1992, 47 years after the end of World War II. Three years later, on the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, Thayer returned to Austria and visited Gunskirchen Lager with Finkleman.

“I rode in his car with him, and we went down the same lane I’d marched down with my 16 guys,” Thayer said. “The smell was exactly the same. Smoke, tobacco, filth. I couldn’t believe it. They had a lot of press there from all over the world, because that was probably the worst of the death camps.”

By then, Thayer was winding down what he terms the “second third” of his life—his professional career, which fell between his education and his retirement.

After the war, Thayer returned to the UO, and in just one year finished an economics degree while also working as the vice president of the co-op bookstore. He sold trucks for several years after graduating, and one summer, while in The Dalles, met Patricia Cunningham, a young teacher from Seattle.

“There was never any question that she was who I wanted to marry,” he said. “My roommate in college was an Episcopal priest, and he wouldn’t marry us during Lent. So we both quit our jobs the Friday before Easter, and we got married the day after Easter. We had no jobs, so I like to joke that we honeymooned for 17 months.”

The best man at James and Patricia’s wedding was none other than Thomas E. Autzen, BS ’43, a philanthropist and fellow Duck whose studies in Eugene inspired his father, plywood manufacturer and Oregon State University alumnus Thomas J. Autzen, to create the Autzen Foundation to raise money for a new football stadium for the UO (we assume you’ve heard of the finished product).

Patricia was a fashion artist and a talented musician, and together with her new husband founded St. Bartholomew’s Church in Beaverton. She was a passionate supporter of Thayer, which was vital when he decided to turn the experience he gained working in the UO’s co-op bookstore into a fully fledged career.

“I made up my mind I really wanted to try a business for myself,” he said. “I’d worked at the co-op, so I thought why don’t I go into stationery, selling social stationery, commercial stationery, and office furniture? Beaverton had 1,900 people at the time, and less than 50,000 people lived in Washington County. We got a building, $100 a month for 1,000 square feet, and we opened 17 months after Pat and I got married.”

The honeymoon was officially over.

While James and Patricia Thayer started a family—raising Jim Jr., Anne, John, Tommy, and Mike—their other baby, J. Thayer Company, flourished, offering a product that was definitely considered niche in rural 1950s Oregon.

“When he opened the business with mom back in 1955, it was a unique retail store because Beaverton was very much a farming community,” said John, who earned a bachelor of science in history from the UO in 1981. “He and mom brought in a lot of products you couldn’t find in Beaverton, or even in Portland. It became an award winning showplace.

“It was a store that was a destination. People would come from all over Portland to shop there. The real draw for the society people were the fine gifts, social stationary, wedding gifts, and party supplies. It was a unique store, and really put dad’s business on the map. I run into people all the time who said they shopped at dad’s store when they were a kid.”

J. Thayer Company won the Geyer Award as the Top Small Retailer in America, and when the namesake decided it was time to retire, he sold it to John, Mike, and Jim Jr.

“With them it took off,” he said. “Mike handled the commercial side, and John ran the company. Jim Jr. did the furniture. It was a perfect setup, and they went like gangbusters.”

The company went so well that US Office Products made the sons an offer they couldn’t refuse, and bought the company before selling it on to Staples. Staples was not using the original company name, so John got the rights back and is now the president of J. Thayer Company.

Of the Brigadier General’s children, John was not alone in attending the University of Oregon. Both Mike and Anne studied in Eugene, with Mike receiving a bachelor of science in history in 1985, later marrying Kristy Thayer, BA ’93, who graduated from the SOJC with an advertising degree. Mike elected not to stay in the office supplies business following the sale of J. Thayer Company, and together with Kristy, opened Pete’s Mountain Vineyard & Winery in neighboring West Linn.

Anne left the UO one class shy of graduating, and, an entrepreneur like her father, opened her own cleaning company. She appeared on Broadway and studied at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, but passed away at 49 following a battle with breast cancer.

John, Mike, Anne, and Kristy are far from the only Ducks related to James Thayer, though. Two of Jim Jr.’s children, twins Matthew and Patrick, graduated in 2011 with degrees in business and art history respectively, while Patricia’s niece, Patty Krier, BA ’68, MA ’72, MA ’84, is the special assistant to the executive director of the UO’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History.

Of the two children that “got away” and did not attend the UO, Jim Jr. attended the University of Puget Sound and is now an account executive at a workspace solutions company in Portland, while Tommy took an entirely different career path. In addition to serving on the Board of Trustees at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, Tommy Thayer is best-known to millions of rock music fans worldwide as the lead guitarist for KISS.

That, however, is not Brigadier General James Thayer’s sole link to the “Rock and Roll All Nite” group—his ties to the band might just stretch all the way back to 1945, in that dark forest in northern Austria.

Chaim Witz was born in Israel in 1949 to Flora Klein, a young woman who had survived a number of camps in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II. Klein lost her own mother and grandmother to a gas chamber in a death camp, but was herself spared because the guards employed her to cut their hair. Understandably reluctant to talk about what she experienced during the war, Klein did not share much of her story with Witz, who conducted his own research at Israel’s Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem. Based on what he learned there, he thinks there’s a good chance that his mother was among those freed from Gunskirchen Lager when Thayer’s reconnaissance platoon marched down the forest road and opened the gates to the camp.

And the link to KISS? For most of his life, Chaim Witz has been better known to the world as Gene Simmons, bass player and co-lead singer for the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted-band.

“I owe a debt of gratitude to General Thayer,” said Simmons in a 2012 interview with The Oregonian. “Meeting him is a humbling experience. You’re in the presence of greatness.”

“I never had any ambition to be Mr. Big, even though I fell into things that made me look like I was Mr. Big,” the ever-modest Thayer said. “Not this kid—I was never that bright.”

Unfortunately then for Thayer—a self-admitted C-student who didn’t consider himself to be outstanding at all, despite also serving as the president of the Beaverton Chamber of Commerce, president of the Oregon Historical Society, president of the Port of Portland, as a member of the Board of Trustees at Reed College, and also as the interim president of Tuality Healthcare for a period—the accolades keep coming.

Brigadier General Thayer is an advisor to the “Keep the Spirit of ’45 Alive” coalition of organizations that successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress to designate a “Spirit of ’45 Day” to honor the men and women of the World War II generation. This year, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, will see events scheduled throughout America from August 14–16, including a “Kiss in” in Times Square to recreate one of the war’s most iconic photos, WWII airplane flyovers, observances during sporting events, and more. In Oregon, the “Oregon Spirit of ‘45” organization is holding a statewide concert tour in August that will include performances by the 234th Army Band. An image of Thayer leading his troops through Günzburg, where he was in charge of the city’s reconstruction after the war, will be used in “Spirit of ‘45” promotional materials for the 70th Anniversary Commemorative Weekend, and will even appear on a billboard in Times Square.

Additionally, the Oregon Military Museum at Camp Withycombe is undergoing a major renovation, and when completed will be formally christened the “Brigadier General James B. Thayer Oregon Military Museum.” Initially, Thayer objected to having his name on the camp, preferring instead that it be named after Major General (Ret.) Raymond Rees, but, he said, “my boys came out and put the full court press on, so I had no choice.”

“I have not met a greater man than my dad,” said Mike.

Replied his father with a wink, “It’s easy when you have low standards.”

Thayer’s sons have all contributed to the museum’s fundraising—KISS even played an acoustic show in Lake Oswego in 2014 that raised more than $1 million—and Oregon’s Safeway and Albertsons locations have joined in as well, and are taking donations through the end of July. The Brigadier General James B. Thayer Oregon Military Museum will have four times the exhibition space of the previous museum, allowing for greater access for visitors and researchers. The historical scope of the museum will cover Oregon’s entire populated history, from Native American warrior traditions through to the lives of Oregon’s soldiers today.

In 2005, Brigadier General James B. Thayer received the UOAA’s Distinguished Alumni Award, joining Brattain, Bowerman, Knight, Ivory, Kesey, Green, and 30 others who have earned the alumni association’s highest distinction.

“One of the reasons he deserved the alumni award was because he really served society, gave back to a large degree and helped people,” said John.

“People make mistakes all the time, and I think they made one in 2005,” countered the Brigadier General. “But I was totally thrilled.”

Patricia Thayer passed away in 2014, and James Thayer had a heart attack two days later. Now 93 and recovering from open heart surgery, the proud Duck may not move as quickly as he did as a student at the UO 70 years ago, but his modesty is as apparent as ever.

“At the top of my list of priorities is the church and God,” he said. “Second is the family. Third is the success of our family, which is tremendously successful. And the fourth is the military. The military is at the bottom, but I get all this publicity because I was in the right place at the right time.”

Brigadier General James B. Thayer, BS ’47, founded a church, raised five children—including three more Ducks—started an award-winning business, was a civic leader, and saved the lives of 15,000 men, women, and children.

Not bad for a one-time “green pea” from Carlton. Not bad at all.

LEARN MORE:
Spirit of 45
Brigadier General James B. Thayer Oregon Military Museum (video)
Nominate a UO graduate for a UOAA alumni award