R.I.P. Brigadier General James Burdette Thayer March 10, 1922 – September 16, 2018.
A distinguished veteran of World War Two, Brigadier General James B. Thayer passed away on September 16, 2018. The rock band Kiss, in which Thayer’s son Tommy is the lead guitarist, reported the general’s death on their official website and included a personal message from the Thayer family.
James B. Thayer was born in 1922 in Oregon. As a young man, he initially pursued a career in journalism, but left college after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and joined the US Army as an infantryman. Demonstrating unusual skill, he soon earned a place in Officer Candidate School, where he was trained as a platoon leader at Fort Benning, Georgia and commissioned as a Second Lieutenant.
In 1944, he joined an anti-tank division in Normandy, France. By 1945, he was leading a reconnaissance mission in Austria, where his platoon engaged Nazi SS troops. When reinforcements arrived, more than eight hundred German soldiers surrendered. This action earned Thayer a Silver Star.
This impressive achievement came about when his platoon was searching for an ammunition dump but discovered a concentration camp instead.
It was the Gunskirchen Lager camp, which was part of the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp complex. When Thayer and his men arrived, there were more than 15,000 Hungarian Jews and several hundred political prisoners being held in the camp.
Thayer later said that the horror of the camp was something that he just wanted to forget, but in 1992 he was recognized by a man named Wolfe Finkelman at Vienna Airport.
Finkelman told Thayer that he was sure that had the Americans not arrived when they did, he would have been dead within the next twenty-four hours. Finkelman was just fourteen when the camp was liberated.
After the war, General Thayer was at the beginning of a tour of concentration camps organized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. Thayer later said that experience changed his life, and his post-war time was spent heavily involved in organizations such as the board of the Port of Portland, the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, the World Affairs Council, the Oregon Graduate Institute, and the Boys and Girls Aid Society, among others.
Thayer retired from the Army Reserves in 1982 and was reactivated in 2000 as Commander of the Oregon State Defense Force with a promotion to Brigadier General. He had an office supply business, the J. Thayer Co., which grew to become the largest independent office supplies company in the Western United States.
Tommy Thayer, the General’s son, has gone in a very different direction than his father. However, his music career has a coincidental link with his father’s military one. In a fascinating twist of fate, the lead singer of the band Kiss, Gene Simmons, happens to be descended from Hungarian Jews–and his mother, Flora Klein, was incarcerated in a Nazi camp with other family members in the Mauthausen-Gusen complex.
Flora survived in part due to her skills as a hairstylist for the camp commandant’s wife. She watched her mother and grandmother go to the gas chamber. She could well have been in the part of the camp that Thayer helped to liberate back in 1942.
Simmons was later born in Israel as Chaim Witz, and has a long history of support for the US military and veterans’ groups. In 2012 Simmons said of Thayer, “I owe a debt of gratitude to General Thayer. Meeting him is a humbling experience.”Also in 2012, Kiss headlined a fundraising event for the refurbishment of the Oregon Military Museum at Camp Withycombe in Clackamas, OR. It has since been renamed the General James Thayer Oregon Military Museum.
In a statement, Tommy Thayer said, “First and foremost, he was a great family man and a great father, but had a great military, business and civilian career. He liked to help people and organizations that needed help.”