Thomas Gibian (born Tomáš Gibian), 1922
Thomas Gibian was born in Prague in 1922. His father Richard was a businessman who represented typewriter and office machine companies, while his mother Věra stayed home to raise Thomas and his younger brothers, George and Paul. Thomas remembers spending summers with his mother’s family in Jince in central Bohemia. He was an avid tennis player and enjoyed learning French and German from tutors. Thomas attended school in Prague and, in 1937, spent one semester studying in France. In January 1939, Thomas’s father, wanting his sons to learn English, sent Thomas and George to St. Edmund’s College in Ware, about 30 miles outside of London. When Czechoslovakia was occupied and dissolved by Nazi forces in March of that year, the rest of the Gibian family fled to Britain. Whilst in the United Kingdom, Thomas graduated from high school. Shortly thereafter, the family left for the United States. Thomas says that the climate in Czechoslovakia leading up to the War had led his father to apply for visas to the United States; the visas were granted in October 1940. The Gibians landed in Boston in November 1940 and Thomas began applying to colleges. He was awarded a scholarship to study chemistry at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and, because of his European education, started classes as a junior.
When Thomas graduated in 1942, he joined the Czechoslovak 312 Squadron of the British Royal Air Force. As a fighter pilot, Thomas flew during the Invasion of Normandy. He also carried out reconnaissance missions and escorted bombers into Germany. Towards the end of WWII, Thomas’s unit was transferred to Prague where he was assigned to the Ministry of Defense; however, Thomas says he was eager to return to the United States and sailed to New York City in January 1946. He received a doctoral degree in chemistry from Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) and began a career in research and management in the chemical industry. Thomas married his wife Peg in 1949 and they had four children together. In 1963, Thomas moved to the Washington, D.C. area when he was named vice-president of research for W.R. Grace & Company. He served as executive vice-president of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts & Sciences (SVU) and was a founding board member of the American Friends of the Czech Republic (AFoCR). Thomas made his first return visit to Prague in 1957, and has visited his homeland regularly ever since. Today, he lives in Sandy Spring, Maryland with his wife, Peg.
Thomas and his family left Britain for the United States on October 21, 1940
“It was a rather exciting journey because we were in a convoy. It was a time when the German submarines were very active in the North Atlantic. A whole flotilla of boats was assembled and escorted by British destroyers. It was a quiet journey for a few days and one day in the morning my father said when we were still in the cabin ‘It seems awfully quiet. Our engines are not making any noise.’ And when we came up to the deck, it turned out that we were alone; there were no other ships left. We were no longer in the convoy because the engine broke down, but they were able to fix so that we could get started again. We did have one U-boat sighting; there was one gun on it. The ship we were on, SS Baltrover, was normally in service in the Scandinavian Sea, from Hull to Scandinavia, so it was not used to going over the Atlantic. But we went and continued on and ended up first in St. John’s, Newfoundland and then to Boston. And we arrived in Boston around the 15th of November of 1940.”
Thomas graduated from college in June 1942 and talks about his next step
“I thought ‘Well, I would like to join the Czech section of the Royal Air Force,’ but in order to do that, you had to go to Canada. So I had to go to the draft board to get permission to leave the country, and I explained to a nice old gentleman, and he was very understanding and he said ‘Do you know anybody in Canada?’ I said ‘Yes,’ we had some Czech friends outside of Buffalo in Hamilton. So he said ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll give you a two-week permit to go visit your friends in Canada, and if you don’t enlist, come back, tell me, and I will mark you as back in the country. But, if you enlist, send me a letter saying’ – and this is practically literally the way he put it – ‘’I was standing on the corner and this group of people came down waving flags about joining the forces and I was overcome and I enlisted.’’ So, I did that.”
In the RAF, Thomas flew during the Normandy Invasion and had other duties as well
“We ended up landing in Europe first on French soil after the armies pushed from the coast, and we would fly back and forth every few days, and you would go the local villages because you didn’t fly all the time.
“It was escorting bombers, taking them, scaring other people away. After the invasion, we did a lot of – on the way up towards Belgium and Holland and across to the Rhine – we did a lot of ground level strafing on primarily railroads, locomotives, trucks. But more and more, escorting the bombers deep into Germany and back, and hoping you had enough fuel to get back.”
Because of his job, Thomas frequently traveled to communist Czechoslovakia
“I had friends in Czechoslovakia and because I worked in the international chemical industry, I would come to Europe several times a year. I was looking at my old passport the other day and it surprised even me. Because I left in January 1939 before the Germans came or the Russians came, I could get entrance visas relatively easily. Sometimes the embassy here would refuse me a visa, then maybe I would stop in Paris and go to the consulate there and they would give me one. But I could go very frequently, and it was kind of confusing to people because ‘Why don’t you stay longer instead of being here for literally a short weekend or long weekend?’”
Thomas recalls his experiences of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968
“1968 I remember very well my emotions and like most emotions, they were personal because our daughter Janet, who was then 17, she had gone on a school trip with a group from Amherst College to Russia and was going to come out through Helsinki, and I had some reason to be in Scandinavia so I met her in Helsinki for the weekend. The next day I was flying to London to continue my business and she was flying to Prague to visit her grandmother and aunt. So I put her on the plane, and I got on another plane, went happily to London. The next morning I woke up, go to breakfast in the hotel, pick up the paper… ‘Russians walk into Prague.’ I was going on to Germany and I could listen to the broadcast of the Czech radio whilst in Bavaria, and I remember very well listening and wondering what’s going on. There was no contact possible, there was no telephones, nothing. About several days later, Peg (my wife) got a Western Union (message) – maybe a week later, maybe even longer – that said basically, from the embassy, ‘On train to Vienna.’”
Category: Oral History