Brig. Gen. James B. Thayer, who joined the U.S. Army in the days following Pearl Harbor and became a highly decorated war hero, died Sunday in Lake Oswego at the age of 96.
Thayer's death was first reported Sunday afternoon on the website of the rock band KISS, for which his son Tommy plays guitar. A statement from Christ Church Episcopal Parish in Lake Oswego confirmed his death in an email to church members Monday, saying a memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 28, at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church (11265 S.W. Cabot St., Beaverton).
"We are saddened by the passing of Brigadier General James B. Thayer. All of us mourn this great man, friend, father and war hero," the KISS statement said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with Tommy and the entire Thayer family during this difficult time."
The website also included a message from the Thayer family: "To all our family and friends, it's with great sadness we let you know our dad James Thayer passed away peacefully early this morning. He was an amazing man and we're going to miss him a lot."
Thayer was born March 10, 1922, in Portland. He grew up and attended school in the small Yamhill county town of Carlton, where he was one of about 100 students.
From a young age, Thayer was enamored of journalism. He was the editor of his high school's newspaper and went on to work as advertising manager of the Daily Emerald while studying economics at the University of Oregon.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Thayer was a sophomore at UO and had recently joined what is known today as the Reserve Officers Training Corps.
"All my friends were joining the Marines and Naval Air Force. I wanted to join, but I didn't want to get drafted. So I went in as a buck private (in the U.S. Army) and went to officer candidate school," Thayer told The Review earlier this year.
He quickly rose through the ranks and, by 1944, found himself clearing mines in Normandy and leading a team of 16 American soldiers as a second lieutenant. As the Germans began to retreat east across France and back into Germany, Thayer's role changed and his platoon was selected for reconnaissance missions.
Toward the latter part of the war, when Hitler planned to evacuate Berlin and head for a remote perch high in the Alps, Thayer's battalion was assigned to enter Austria from the west to block the route, and once again, his platoon was set out on reconnaissance. Just outside of Vienna, they ran into an SS regiment of 800 men and an SS commander who was ready to sacrifice himself rather than surrender.
"Their battalion commander told me he wasn't allowed to surrender unless he killed me and killed himself too," Thayer says. "It was tough. I thought I was going to die."
But with the help of a sergeant who spoke German, Thayer was able to keep the commander talking long enough for his battalion to advance from the rear and defuse the situation — and Thayer was credited with the capture of 800 SS troops.
He is also credited with liberating the Nazi's Gunskirchen concentration camp while leading another mission in Austria in 1945. For his service during World War II, he was awarded the Silver Star and Bronze Star, among other honors.
Following his military service, Thayer returned to Oregon and completed his education at the University of Oregon. He continued his service in the Army Reserves, commanding a unit out of Vancouver, Wash. In 1954, he married the love his life, Patricia Cunningham, and settled in Beaverton, where he started his business, J. Thayer Company, one of the largest office supply firms on the West Coast.
Thayer continued to serve in a number of leadership roles, including president of the Port of Portland, president of the Beaverton Chamber of Commerce and president of the Oregon Historical Society.
He retired from the Army in 1982 as a brigadier general, but he continued to serve his country as a civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army. He was honored in 2012 when the Oregon Military Museum at Camp Withycombe was named for him.
In recent years, he lived at The Stafford Retirement Community in Lake Oswego.
"I wasn't a hero," Thayer told The Review in March. "I just happened to be in the right place at the right time."
Funeral services and a celebration of life have been scheduled this weekend for Gabriel Spaccarelli, who died Sept. 9 in a motorcycle accident. See story, Page A16.
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