When you visit the USS Batfish military museum in Muskogee and walk through the World War II submarine's cramped interior you'll probably find yourself in touch with Ted Thomas.

Literally. During World War II, Thomas fabricated many of the parts for the Batfish, as well as about 140 other subs. One of those vessels rescued former President George H.W. Bush after his plane was shot down by the Japanese.

Today, Thomas leads a peaceful, but busy life in his rural home south of Tahlequah, just west across U.S. 62 from the Bald Hill area where he grew to adulthood.

Between his arrival in the world 87 years ago and today, he has traveled around the world and had more adventures than most people accomplish, even in nearly nine decades.

Along the way, he married and raised a family, worked for a major corporation, spent six years as a peppermint farmer, collected antiques, restored old houses, and researched family history.

Like many people who have led interesting lives, Thomas is modest. But he's happy to talk about his experiences -- provided you can get him to sit still long enough. Friday morning, for example, he had to descend from a ladder where he was repairing a shed.

Wearing his trademark bib overalls, plaid shirt, and cap (accessorized by a nail apron), he greeted a visitor arriving in his yard.

"I'm just 87 years old, and I build every day," he said. But I can't think what you could find to write bout me."

Jewell Linville, who told the Press about Thomas, disagreed. She has spent hours talking with him and said she thought readers would like to know about this accomplished man, who decided to spend his last years in the place where he grew up.

"I was born at Robbins, May 18, 1920," he said. "The old house is still there, but it's covered up where you can't see it."

The house is the second from the swinging bridge at the Wauhillah Outing Club.

He attended the Bald Hill School for his six years of formal education, then farmed with his brother. They traveled around the countryside using an old hay baler, one of the few available locally at the time. The baler still exists and is the property of the Carter family, near Carter's Landing.

Thomas has always loved machinery, including fine automobiles. He learned to drive on the country roads around Bald Hill in a Chevy, similar to the one he now has and is giving to his son in Mississippi.

"I saw the first Model A 1928 Ford that came to Wilson Washington's garage in Tahlequah. He ran the Ford garage bank then," he said.

Even in the Depression-stricken 1930s, small town bankers could show compassion as well as business sense. Thomas recalled one episode with Mr. Upton, of First National Bank.

"In 1932 I can remember going in there with my dad. He wanted to borrow $500," Thomas said. "Mr. Upton walked back there in the cage, counted out $500 and handed it to my dad. They talked a little, shook hands, and we left, never signed papers or anything. You don't see anything like that today."

Thomas had been on an outing with friends on Galor Mountain, south of Fort Smith, when he learned the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. They were returning to Tahlequah, and stopped to get gas at Eldon when someone told them the news.

Young American men flocked to join the military, their patriotism shocked by the Japanese assault.

"Cecil Wilcox left at 3:30 the next morning. I didn't see him again for three years," Thomas said.

He entered the Navy a little later, on Aug. 3, 1942. He had a deferment to care for his ailing mother, but his brother took over the responsibility so he was free to join the service.

"Kenneth Croman came up here one day and said, 'Let's go join the Navy,'" Thomas said. "He had to join the next day, or he'd be drafted into the Army on Monday."

The pair enlisted in Muskogee.

"We went to San Diego and went through the shortest boot camp in the history of the Navy -- 13 days," Thomas said.

After that, he wouldn't see the continental United States until the war ended. He only had one brief leave during that time.

Thomas was assigned to a submarine base.

"Our torpedos were defective when the war started. They wouldn't go off," he said.

He was one of three men who developed a successful firing pin for the torpedos.

During the war, weekly letters from Mr. Stauss, who owned the Chevrolet agency, and Mr. Rogers, a pharmacist, kept Thomas up to date on Tahlequah news. He still appreciates their concern for corresponding with a local serviceman.

Thomas and his coworkers stayed busy for the duration of the war. Until the end, they didn't know how long the haul would be, but the end for Japan came quickly after the United States dropped the first atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

About that time, Thomas and his fellow sailors boarded an aircraft carrier at Bremerton, Wash.

"We got far enough in the ocean that we couldn't swim back. The captain got on the bullhorn and said, 'This is it -- we're on the way to Japan,'"

At night, Thomas was sitting on the flight deck, his feet dangling over the sea, wondering what was going to happen next, when the welcome news came.

One of the crew received the radio transmission of the Japanese surrender and trumpeted, "The war is over!"

Thomas recalls seeing lights coning on all over the Pacific in that area. The U.S. fleet had been running without lights to maintain secrecy, and it suddenly looked like a galaxy across the water.

His ship proceeded to Japan, weathering a typhoon on the way. The sea's force knocked sailors out of their bunks.

"It was like an old hog in a mudhole, just wallering everywhere," Thomas said.

His ship was the first to reach Japan.

After the war, Thomas married Bonnie Lee Watkins, who came from northwest Arkansas. They moved to the Columbia River valley in Oregon, where they farmed peppermint.

"That was a profitable thing for a while. Then everybody found out there was money in it, got into it and ran it into the ground," Thomas said.

During that time he became reacquainted with a deaf-mute couple who had run a shoe repair business in Tahlequah and had also relocated to the Pacific Northwest.

"They were just tickled to death to see me," he said.

The Thomases than moved to Kansas City, where he worked as a carpenter, then in maintenance at a feed mill for 18 years. During that time he built two feed mills which supplied feed for the famed Kansas City stockyards.

Then he got a call from Koppers Sprout Waldron, a Fortune 500 company where he went to work and a son now still works.

Thomas didn't think a major company would be interested in someone who hadn't attended class since the sixth grade.

"If you're looking for someone with an education, throw this in the waste basket. I've got a sixth-grade education in a one-room schoolhouse," he wrote on his application.

"I've been in this business for 38 years and this is the best application I've ever had,' the man who interviewed him replied.

"They didn't ask me one question. They said, 'We want you to go to work for us,'" Thomas said.

So he did. For the next 18 years he traveled the world, working with equipment and plant development.

"I flew about 1 million miles and drove about 1 million miles for them," he said. "The farthest job I ever went to was the shortest one I ever did. It took 15 minutes."

That job was in Australia. The Reagan-era air traffic controllers strike delayed Thomas down under for eight days, so he had plenty of time to sightsee, an unexpected vacation.

During his traveling days, Thomas began collecting old wood-burning cookstoves. He once had about 200, but now has sold almost all of them, as well as many of the other antiques he accumulated over the years.

Thomas has always liked working with old things. When the Thomases lived in Clinton, Mo., they restored an 1896 Queen Anne mansion. It had been empty for 11 years, and the restoration took four years.

They lived in the house, now on the National Register of Historic Places, for two years.

"When I bought it, it was condemned to be torn down. You could stand in the living room and look out the ceiling.," he said.

When they had it the restored home was open a couple of times for tours.

"I opened my mouth one day, sold it in 30 minutes," Thomas said.

He also restored some log cabins that surround an old stone house in Ava., Mo.

Later the Thomases moved to Georgia. His great-great grandfather, Adam Poole Vandiver (1788-1877) was a renowned pioneer in that area. The patriarch, known as the "Tahlullah hunter," reputedly fathered 30 children during his colorful life.

Thomas was named preservationist of the year by the Union County Historical Society in 2005. He was cited for restoring an old bell. Another bell hangs in his front yard here.

He also helped preserve the Souther Mill, finding components and fishing them out of the river bed. They are now on display in a museum in Georgia.

Bonnie died in 1996, and today Thomas shares his home with his two dogs, his souvenirs and his memories -- and the friends he loves to visit with.

But he found the number of people who served in World War II, or who lived here at the time, dwindles daily.

"I decided to come back where I was raised and see how things were going. Nearly everybody my age is gone. There's not many of them around.

"My health has always been good. I've always enjoyed like, and I'd like to just push a button and do it all over again."

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