Gage McKinney: Grass Valley’s Clarence Thomas becomes first World War I fatality |

Gage McKinney: Grass Valley’s Clarence Thomas becomes first World War I fatality

Gage McKinney
Special to The Union
Clarence Thomas
Searls Historical Library

America entered World War I in April 1917 and within days suffered its first fatality as a belligerent country — Lieutenant Clarence Crase Thomas, U.S. Navy, a Grass Valley native.

Clarence’s father, John M. Thomas, was an immigrant from Cornwall, United Kingdom, who began as a miner and rose to become manager at the Citizens Bank. Clarence was born in 1886 and excelled in local schools. In 1904, he obtained an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland.

After graduating, Thomas served on gunboats and cruisers and rose from ensign to lieutenant. Two weeks after America entered the war, he took charge of a naval armed guard on the merchant steamship SS Vacuum, sailing for Liverpool. On the voyage to Britain he was vigilant at his gun, watching for German submarines, spending days and nights on watch. By the time his ship docked, he could hardly stand on his blistered and swollen feet.

Only days later, the Vacuum began its return voyage to America. One hundred twenty miles west of the Hebrides, Thomas’ shipmates sighted a German sub. As Thomas and his gunners took their stations, a torpedo struck, blowing through the ship aft of the engines and throwing Thomas into the water. The Vacuum sank in minutes, going down with its bow high in the air. Thomas made it to a life raft, but after 24 hours on the open Atlantic, he succumbed and was buried at sea.

Thomas left behind a young wife, Evelyn Martin Thomas of Annapolis, who had visited the Thomas family on North Auburn Street in Grass Valley. In 1918, Evelyn Thomas traveled at the invitation of the navy to Newport News, Virginia. There on the Fourth of July she ceremonially launched the destroyer USS Thomas.

The ship served in the U.S. Navy until 1940 when President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive agreement – the “destroyer for bases” deal — sending 50 destroyers, including the USS Thomas, to Britain’s Royal Navy. In exchange, the U.S. acquired naval and air bases in the Atlantic and Caribbean.

Gage McKinney, who lives in Grass Valley, is the author of “The 1930s: No Depression Here,” “MacBoyle’s Gold” and other books. Visit for information.

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