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WWII ambulance driver dies a knight in Albuquerque at 96

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Thomas Grasser (Courtesy of Linda Hall)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

World War II veteran Thomas Grasser often said “every day was gravy, and if he could make it through the war, then he could make it through anything,” said his daughter, Linda Hall of Albuquerque.

Grasser was an 18-year-old kid who had just graduated from his Wisconsin high school in June 1943 when he was drafted into the Army. Trained as a medic and ambulance driver, he hit Omaha Beach in Normandy 14 days after the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion.

Assigned to Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army, Grasser steered his ambulance through fighting, including the Battle of the Bulge, and he was among the forces who liberated Dachau and Buchenwald.

Although he entered the war with the mindset that he was not likely coming back, he returned relatively unscathed and lived a good long life, his daughter said.

Grasser died June 1 in Albuquerque, surrounded by his family. He was 96.

Decorated during the war for his military service, Grasser in 2015 was honored with two additional medals: the Bronze Star, the fourth-highest federal military medal, presented for combat heroism or meritorious service; and the French Legion of Honor, which came with a knighthood, making him Sir Thomas Grasser.

“We joked with him about being ‘Sir Thomas,’ ” Hall said. “He’d just laugh and say that the real heroes are the guys who fought and died for their country.”

Which isn’t to say that Grasser was not affected by the war, Hall said. He was deeply troubled by the massacre at Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge, when 84 Americans taken prisoner were assembled in a field and executed by German soldiers.

He was also shaken to his core by the abominations of humanity he saw at Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps, Hall said.

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Thomas Grasser in 2015 with the ambulance he drove during World War II. (Courtesy of Linda Hall)

“He talked about people who had been executed at the camps and their bodies piled up, and how entering the barracks he found people who were so sick they could not move from their wooden pallets. Just the effort of gently picking them up and carrying them out was enough that many died in his arms.”

Mostly, however, Grasser didn’t talk much about his war years until after 2015, when he came upon a World War II ambulance sitting in the New Mexico Museum of Military History in Albuquerque.

“He saw numbers painted on the ambulance fender and asked why those numbers were used, and he’s told those were the numbers stamped into the bumper of the ambulance,” Hall said. Grasser then informs them: “‘That’s the very same ambulance that I drove; that ambulance was my home for two years during the war.'”

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Thomas Grasser became Sir Thomas Grasser in 2015, after receiving the French Legion of Honour medal for his service during World War II. (Courtesy of Linda Hall)

After that serendipitous discovery, Grasser spoke more openly about his war experiences, and he occasionally attended military events, posing for photos standing next to the ambulance.

Grasser’s military service didn’t end with World War II. He joined the U.S. Navy Reserve from 1947 until 1955, and then immediately signed on with the New Mexico National Guard, leaving in 1976 with the rank of sergeant first class.

An aspiring painter when younger, Grasser moved to Santa Fe to attend an art school and worked as a dishwasher at Bishop’s Lodge. There he met waitress Maria Montoya, a Fred Harvey girl, and “the love of his life,” Hall said. They were married 49 years until she died in 1999.

Realizing that the life of an artist was not exactly lucrative, Grasser took a job with Sears Roebuck and Co. in Santa Fe about 1953. He retired as a manager in 1987 and subsequently worked part time for Furrow’s Home Lumber and Walgreens.

In more recent years, Grasser was a longtime volunteer at the Albuquerque Visitors Information Center in Old Town.

“My dad loved people and loved helping them and was very proud of New Mexico and wanted more folks to know about it,” Hall said. “And he never slowed down, that’s for sure.”

Not only was he a member of what has been called the Greatest Generation, but Grasser also belonged to the “greatest dads club,” Hall said. “He was very loving, kind and wise, and he had a great sense of humor and an extremely positive attitude.”

In addition to daughter Linda Hall, Grasser is survived by daughters Pamela Sutton of Los Alamos and Valerie Harris of Granbury, Texas; son Thomas W. Grasser of Albuquerque; and nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

A rosary and funeral service will be held for Grasser on June 9, 10 a.m., at John XXIII Catholic Community, 4831 Tramway NE. Burial will take place June 10, 9:30 a.m., at the Santa Fe National Cemetery, 501 N. Guadalupe St., Santa Fe, with full military honors and his World War II ambulance parked nearby.


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