Turkey Thompson: The Steel Helmet

By Clarence George on January 18, 2016
Turkey Thompson: The Steel Helmet
Thompson was twice outpointed by Bob Pastor at Gilmore Field in Los Angeles in 1941.

In addition to his impressive ring career, Thompson is yet another boxer who played a role in American cinematic history…

“He always had a huge chest. His schoolmates called him ‘Turkey Chest,’ and the nickname was eventually shortened to ‘Turkey.’”—boxing historian Herb Goldman

Although only 5’8½” tall, Turkey Thompson was a huge-chested, iron-chinned, and power-punching heavyweight who fought from 1937 to 1952 (though inactive in ‘45, ‘46, and ‘51), winding up with a record of 55 wins, 39 by knockout, 15 losses, only two by knockout, two draws, and one no contest, an average of six fights a year.

Born on Christmas Day 1919 in Anadarko, Oklahoma, Thompson fought out of Los Angeles, winning his first eight fights, five by KO or TKO, before being outpointed by Bobby Seaman at Los Angeles’ Olympic Auditorium on February 21, 1939. He won his next six, three by KO or TKO, before again being outpointed by Seaman at the same venue that November 7. Things began to pick up, however, with Thompson knocking out Big Boy Hogue in the third at the Olympic Auditorium that December 26, immediately followed by a ninth-round TKO win over Johnny “Bandit” Romero at the same venue on January 9, 1940. He outpointed Teddy Yarosz at, yes, the Olympic Auditorium that March 26, followed by a fourth-round KO of Romero at the Coliseum in San Diego that May 3, stopping him by second-round TKO at the same venue three weeks later.Thompson stopped Glen Lee, who would appear in Body and Soul, by seventh-round TKO at the Olympic Auditorium that July 1. He stopped Junior Munsell by second-round TKO at Hollywood’s Legion Stadium that December 20, outpointing Tommy Martin at the same venue on January 31, 1941 (the year he was ranked sixth by The Ring), thus winning California’s heavyweight title. After 12 wins, 10 by KO or TKO, Thompson was outpointed by Bob Pastor at Gilmore Field in Los Angeles on March 17 that year.

In his next fight, that May 19, Thompson drew against Tony Musto at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles before again being outpointed by Pastor that July 23, again at Gilmore Field. He knocked out Buddy Knox in the first at the Olympic Auditorium that August 26 before drawing against Abe Simon at Gilmore Field that October 6. He knocked out Henry Cooper in the second at the Legion Stadium on February 13, 1942 (the year he was third-ranked), and stopped Pat Valentino by ninth-round TKO at San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium that March 2. Valentino got more or less even that May 11, winning on points at the same venue in “one of the biggest fistic upsets in California heavyweight history,” according to The Ring.

Except for a no contest, Thompson won his next 13, nine by KO or TKO, including twice beating Gus Dorazio, first by second-round TKO at the Auditorium in Oakland that October 7, then by split decision at the Arena in Philly that November 17. He stopped Eddie Blunt by 10th-round TKO at Oakland’s Auditorium on February 17, 1943 (the year he was ranked eighth), and twice fought Elmer Ray, the first bout resulting in a no contest at Lane Field in San Diego that August 9, the second with him knocking Ray out in the first at the Olympic Auditorium that August 24.

Although Lee Q. Murray won on points at Madison Square Garden on July 28, 1944, Thompson knocked out Johnny Haynes in the seventh at the Olympic Auditorium on May 20, 1947 (the year he was ranked eighth), in only his second fight after a two-year hiatus, stopped Kid Riviera by fourth-round TKO at the same venue that August 5, and beat Arturo Godoy by unanimous decision at the same venue that October 7. Jimmy Bivins beat him by unanimous decision at the ever-popular Olympic Auditorium on March 9, 1948.

Thompson beat capable guys like Tony Bosnich and Willie Bean — the former by unanimous decision at the Olympic Auditorium that June 29, the latter by disqualification at the same venue that September 14 — before being outpointed by Valentino at the Civic Auditorium that December 20, thus losing his California championship. He beat his next five, four by KO or TKO, including avenging himself against Murray, stopping him by sixth-round TKO at the Armory in Spokane on October 12, 1949 (the year he was ranked third), before losing to John Holman by majority decision at the Legion Stadium on January 27, 1950.

The Holman loss proved the beginning of the end for Thompson, who lost his remaining four fights, to Frank Buford by split decision at the Legion Stadium that July 7, to Rex Layne by unanimous decision at the Fairgrounds Coliseum in Salt Lake City that August 15, and to Clarence Henry by unanimous decision at the Legion Stadium that September 15, his last fight before Bean retired him in the seventh at the same venue on May 17, 1952. Other than Bean, the only man to stop him was Al Hart, who knocked him out in the first at the Olympic Auditorium on September 19, 1944.

In addition to his impressive ring career, despite never having got a shot at the title, Thompson is yet another boxer who played a role in American cinematic history.

The Steel Helmet is one of the finest war movies ever made, and the first about the Korean War, all about a small group of ragtag infantrymen holed up in a Buddhist temple. The film stars Gene Evans, brilliant as bearded, cigar-chomping Sergeant Zack, who, when asked where his officer is, growls, “Fertilizing a rice paddy with the rest of the patrol.” Also in the film is James Edwards as Corporal Thompson. Writer, director, and producer Samuel Fuller, a World War II veteran, had a maid, Eunice Thompson, who introduced him to her husband, Turkey. An Army veteran himself, Turkey helped Fuller in developing the character of the corporal. In gratitude and friendship, Fuller named the character Thompson.

Turkey Thompson, who died June 27, 1984, age 64, deserves far better than people thinking maybe that’s what a tom turkey is called up Nawth.

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  1. Clarence George 04:43pm, 01/19/2016

    And quite emblematic of the character, Eric.

  2. Eric 04:15pm, 01/19/2016

    “Fertilizing a rice paddy with the rest of the patrol.” teehee. Classic.

  3. Clarence George 05:03am, 01/19/2016

    What a great post, Bob.

    Unusual, I think, that a combat veteran would go into teaching.  I’m reminded of the former Marine DI who became a teacher, often yelling at his young charges, “I can’t hear you, maggot!”  Or of the former prison guard who became a truant officer, who once mistakenly referred to the students as “inmates.”  The poet Theodore Roethke sometimes went crazy in the classroom, but that didn’t stop him from being a good teacher.  Anyway, you should certainly look him up.  He could indeed still be alive, however elderly.  You may not like what you find, of course, but that’s so often the way.

    It’s a disgrace how forgotten is the Korean War, but at least some of the men who fought in it have been remembered here.

  4. Bob 04:33am, 01/19/2016

    I had a fifth grade teacher who was a Korean War veteran. Looking back it is very obvious he had PTSD, although there was no such diagnosis in the mid to late 1960s. At least two or three times a week he would go into a catatonic state as he spoke about his experiences in Korea, especially how the enemy kept charging and his fingers had to remain on the machine gun triggers for hours on end as the bodies piled up. His fingertips were all burned and deformed. He was a disturbed man who scared a lot of the children in the class, including me, but I don’t recall ever even considering “reporting” his “odd” behavior to my parents. In hindsight it is obvious he was a very decent man who was obviously damaged by his wartime experience that still haunted him 15 years after the fact. I’m sure he wouldn’t remember me if he was even still alive, but it would be nice to seek him out and thank him for his service. He was probably no more than 18 to 20 years old when sent to that faraway land to fight a war that history seems to have forgotten.

  5. Clarence George 03:05am, 01/19/2016

    Fantastic post, Irish, thankee.

  6. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 10:18pm, 01/18/2016

    Clarence George-In the late Fifties I served in an outfit with a Sergeant who was awarded the Silver Star for action above and beyond at the Battle of Bunker Hill in Korea. As he related it to me after much prodding, he had manned his machine gun all through the night as North Korean and Chinese troops human waved his position. He said when the surge finally receded and morning light came the bodies were piled three and four high in front of his bunker. I think of him from time to time for that and for an incident in the barracks where another greenhorn sergeant trying to claim his glory I guess, got drunk and challenged him to a fight and he refused to fight

  7. Clarence George 06:15pm, 01/18/2016

    Very glad, Dennis, thanks very much.

  8. Dennis Taylor 04:09pm, 01/18/2016

    Great piece, Clarence. I definitely learned something today.

  9. Clarence George 02:23pm, 01/18/2016

    Thanks very much indeed, Mike, and so glad you share my admiration for TT.  Also, completely agree with you on Murray.

    Canada Lee was outstanding in that movie, as he was in the rather overrated “Lifeboat.”  He had a great chin, though he died quite young.  Glen Lee played Marino, who gets laid out by Charley Davis (John Garfield) in a bar, I think.

    As for who’s next, I can tell you that it will appear on his boithday.  No, gentlemen, I can say no more, no matter how many blondes you promise me.

  10. Clarence George 01:55pm, 01/18/2016

    Quite right, Mr. O’Malley, and Ray is excellent in the aforementioned “Men in War.”  I didn’t care for him in “We’re No Angels,” but, then, I didn’t much care for the whole movie.

    Best,

    David Sheiner

  11. Mike Silver 01:48pm, 01/18/2016

    Clarence, I can’t wait to see who you’ve got on tap next. Glad Turkey Thompson got your attention. He deserves it. You mention Lee Q. Murray, a murderous puncher, and another forgotten gem of an era filled with gems. Didn’t know Glen Lee was in Body and Soul. But the movie had other some great pros: Canada Lee, Johnny Indrisano, Artie Dorrell and even Ceferino Garcia in the background.

  12. J. Pat O'Malley 12:32pm, 01/18/2016

    Also always memorable is the vastly underrated Aldo Ray.

  13. J. Pat O'Malley 12:30pm, 01/18/2016

    Woody Strode is always memorable.

  14. Clarence George 10:23am, 01/18/2016

    Right you are, Mike, and a very good movie.  Woody Strode was particularly memorable.

  15. Mike Casey 10:12am, 01/18/2016

    Pork Chop Hill (1959) with Gregory Peck was set in the Korean War.

  16. Clarence George 10:03am, 01/18/2016

    Worth noting, Eric, that there were thousands of defectors from the other side.  Which reminds me of an East German spokeswoman who once claimed that the wall was intended to keep people from entering, not leaving.  There were people who believed her.  Paul Hollander wrote of such characters in “Political Pilgrims,” an OK if overly long and rather dry tome.

    Yes, I know what you mean.  I always marvel at people who sport Guevara T-shirts.  I mean, why not Himmler while they’re at it?  And that reminds me of a very funny Monty Python sketch where Hitler (John Cleese) and Himmler (Michael Palin) are hiding out in England.  In full Nazi uniform, their only “disguise” (which fools everyone) consists of having changed their names to Hilter and Bimmler.  “I’m sorry mein Fuhrer, mein, ahem, mein Dickie old chum.”

    By the way, a riveting book dealing with the Korean War is “The Last Stand of Fox Company,” by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin.

  17. Eric 09:20am, 01/18/2016

    Clarence…I thought the movie was overrated and I used to watch MASH reruns every day after school back in the day. If memory serves me right, the show came on where I lived at the time either right before or after, “The Gong Show,” with Chucky Baby. I actually find it suprising that there were only 20 known defectors. Been meaning to check out some movie titled, “Trumbo,” but I hate to put any money in Hollyweird’s pocket. I hear they lay it on pretty thick about how beneficial socialism is for humanity. Anyone who knows even a little bit about the former Soviet Union and the so-called, “Russian Revolution,” can see the same thing is happening here right in the good ole USA. Show any grade schooler a picture of Hitler and they will identify who it is, but show a college graduate a picture of Genrikh Yagoda, perhaps the greatest mass murderer of all-time or Lazar Kaganovich, and they will be clueless to identify either man. I’m always amazed at the number of people who have have no idea that millions Ukrainians and others were literally starved to death or executed in the Ukrainian Genocide/the Holodomor. Pretty pathetic.

  18. Clarence George 08:23am, 01/18/2016

    I don’t know about you, Eric, but I hated that movie.  And the show is one of the most overrated in the history of television (though I found Loretta Swit very hot).

    One of the things that fascinated me about that war were the 20 or so Americans (and I believe one Brit) who defected to the other side.  I mean, how bizarre!  I think they all eventually returned.  Surprise!

    Good to know that others share my interest in TT.

  19. Eric 08:04am, 01/18/2016

    Other than the movie, “MASH,” I can’t recall ever seeing a movie about the Korean War. My father served in the Korean War so it is nice to know that there are at least a few movies out there honoring the vets who fought in that war, it is indeed the “Forgotten War.” Always was interested in Turkey Thompson since first reading about him back in the late 70’s. Becoming a successful world ranked heavyweight contender at 5’8 1/2” is quite an accomplishment regardless of the era.

  20. Clarence George 07:30am, 01/18/2016

    Thanks very much, Mike.

    Yeah, I can’t either.  I mean, look at his record.

  21. Mike Casey 07:21am, 01/18/2016

    At last an article on Turkey Thompson! Well done, Clarence. Can never quite understand why Turkey’s name doesn’t come up more often.

  22. Clarence George 07:15am, 01/18/2016

    By the way, there’s another Korean War film, “All the Young Men” (an OK movie), with Ingemar Johansson quite imposing in battle fatigues.

    For anyone interested in that largely forgotten conflict, I unreservedly recommend Max Hastings’ “The Korean War.”

  23. Clarence George 06:55am, 01/18/2016

    Delighted you liked it, Jim.  I have another one coming out in March that I hope will also meet with your approval.

    A homicidal hitter, Thompson is one of my favorites.  I love that someone of his stature drew against a giant like Abe Simon.  I’ve long wanted to write about him, but was lacking a bit of quirk.  I found it with his connection with “The Steel Helmet.”  Robert Ecksel has turned me on to some other Samuel Fuller movies I didn’t know of—“The Naked Kiss,” for example.  Speaking of quirky, if you haven’t seen William Castle’s “Homicidal,” I highly recommend it.

    Thanks loads, Mr. Homeier (your namesake, I understand, is quite the recluse). 

    Evans is in “Fixed Bayonets!” as well.  My favorite Korean War film is probably “Men in War,” with the superb Nehemiah Persoff.

    All the best,

    Vito Scotti

  24. Skip Homeier 06:34am, 01/18/2016

    Fantastic story. What’s not to like? Turkey Thompson, who is always mentioned as a tough hombre by the more notable opponents he faced. He also has a great nickname. Gene Evans, a terrific but relatively unknown actor, Samuel Fuller, one of the most underrated and under-appreciated filmmakers in history, and The Steel Helmet, an obscure Korean War film that should be mandatory viewing in all college cinema classes (along with nearly all of Samuel Fuller’s films). As an aside, another very good but forgotten 1951 Korean War movie is Fixed Bayonets, which I believe has a young James Dean in an uncredited role.

  25. Jim Crue 06:14am, 01/18/2016

    Wow Clarence, another gem. I knew almost nothing of Turkey Thompson. I do now.
    Samuel Fuller was quite a Hollywood character and he made terrific movies.

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