In his wallet, Ross Creek Jr. keeps two childhood photos of himself and his two younger brothers. Laminated back to back, the black-and-white images show the three Creek boys together, each born about a year apart.
Ross points to the photo, identifying himself, the oldest. “I’m the only Creek alive,” he says. He points to the smaller brother in the middle. That’s Roy Creek, the youngest. Roy served two tours of duty in Vietnam with the Marines and died in 2003 due to complications from Agent Orange.
Ross also served in the Marines during the Vietnam War, deployed stateside since the government wouldn’t send two brothers to a war zone.
“And that’s Tom,” Ross says. He points to the blonde-haired middle brother. Born in 1950, Thomas E. Creek is the reason Ross joined the military. He’s the reason Roy joined the military. He’s the reason Ross’s eyes still get teary telling a story about something that happened more than 54 years ago.
“I’ve Got It, Mac”
In a city filled with military Veterans, Thomas Elbert Creek has earned special significance. Countless local residents have served admirably. More than 1,500 Texas Panhandle Veterans have given their lives in war. But Tom Creek is the only Amarilloan ever to be awarded the U.S. Medal of Honor. In fact, he’s the youngest soldier in Texas history to have received the award.
Thomas Creek dropped out of Palo Duro High School to enlist as a Marine in January 1968. He was 17 years old at the time. He deployed to Vietnam that July, first seeing duty as a rifleman. By September, Creek had been designated fire-team leader with Company I, 3rd Battalion 9th Marines, 3rd Marine Division.
On November 1, he was promoted to lance corporal and had earned a nickname: “Billy the Kid.” He told his family it was because of his prowess on the battlefield, that he was gaining a reputation for killing so many Viet Cong.
But Tom wasn’t exactly bragging about it. In letters, he told the family his nerves were shot. “He said ‘I can’t even hold a cup of coffee.’ He was smoking two to three packs of cigarettes a day,” Ross says. “They took young men and made them killers.”
Three months later, at the age of 18, Tom himself was killed in action.
On February 13, 1969, Tom and five other Marines were providing security as a convoy moved to resupply the Vandegrift Command Base. Near the Cam Lo resettlement village, an enemy mine destroyed one of the vehicles and halted the convoy. The Marines immediately came under heavy fire from the surrounding jungle. Creek and his squad fought back. While moving into a better position to engage, Creek took a bullet in the neck.
“One eyewitness said there was blood all over [Tom] as he was running and calling out ‘Take cover!’” Ross says. The Marines sheltered in a gully, and Thomas joined them, diving in. “I think he was really close to those five men.”
The original Medal of Honor citation explains what happened next:
At the same time, a North Vietnamese fragmentation grenade was thrown into the gully where he had fallen, landing between him and several companions. Fully realizing the inevitable results of his action, Lance Corporal Creek valiantly rolled on the grenade and absorbed the full force of the explosion with his own body, thereby saving the lives of five of his fellow Marines. As a result of his heroic action, his men were inspired to such aggressive action that the North Vietnamese were defeated and the convoy was able to continue its vital mission. Lance Corporal Creek’s indomitable courage, inspiring valor and selfless devotion to duty upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
Thomas E. Creek took a grenade for the five other Marines in his convoy. The act of extreme self-sacrifice shielded the others from the grenade’s deadly shockwave and fragmentation.
According to witnesses, when Tom saw the grenade land—and before he covered it—he shouted to one of them, “I’ve got it, Mac.”
“What makes someone, in a split second, decide they are going to be a hero and save all those men’s lives?” asks Kris Creek. She and Ross married in 1977. She never knew Tom.
The Creek brothers grew up poor on the north side of town. Ross Creek Sr. was a truck driver. The boys’ mom, Bobbie, had three kids in diapers by the time she turned 20. The family worked hard but struggled.
“He was just an all-around American boy,” Ross says of Tom. “He loved baseball. He was a lefty.” They were members of the Maverick Club and played baseball there.
During the summers and after school, the brothers hustled to help out their family by earning extra income. They sold magazines. They helped roofing crews. On Sundays, they would buy Spud-nuts from the Amarillo Boulevard location and resell them door-to-door.
Tom found work at a gas station, and later as a short-order cook at the Boulevard Denny’s. “For one summer, he drove an ice cream truck,” remembers Ross. “We’d go on the north side and there were always a few [kids] who didn’t have any money. Tom would end up giving kids ice cream. He didn’t keep that job long.”
Kris says the brothers were close-knit and the neighborhood knew they weren’t to be messed with.
“He could take care of himself, but he wasn’t mean,” Ross says of Tom. “He cared about people.”
More than a year after Tom joined the Marines, Ross remembers coming home one day in early 1969. Military
personnel had already come to the door and informed his parents of Tom’s death. “When I walked in, Mom and Dad were crying in the kitchen. That’s how I found out,” he says. Eventually, Bobbie locked herself in the bedroom and, in her grief, refused to interact with the family for several days. Ross Sr. returned to work.
“Finally, I went and knocked on the door,” Ross Jr. says. He reminded her that, though she had lost a son, she still had two boys who needed her. “That was the day she came out.”
On April 20, 1970, Ross and his parents traveled to the White House—Roy was temporarily shipped home from Vietnam—to receive the Medal of Honor on Tom’s behalf. President Richard Nixon was still in Houston dealing with the aftermath of the Apollo 13 emergency, so Vice President Spiro Agnew presented it to the family.
Ross has been telling Tom’s story ever since. “It’s important, the Medal of Honor,” he says. He believes too few local people know about Tom’s heroism. He’s traveled to towns and cities where signs at the city limits call attention to a Medal of Honor recipient who grew up there. Amarillo doesn’t have that.
“We’d like to see a big sign as you come into town that says, ‘Home of Thomas E. Creek, Medal of Honor recipient,’” Ross says.
Or a street near Palo Duro High School, where Tom is in the Hall of Fame. Or a park. Or a library.
The most significant local honor in Tom’s memory occurred in 2004 at the naming of the Thomas E. Creek Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Ross and a few local leaders worked hard to make that happen. He was joined by Selden B. Hale III, the late Amarillo lawyer and Marine Corps Veteran, as well as World War II Veteran Pat Cunningham, a former Potter County Commissioner who is also now deceased. The men spent nearly three years collecting signatures from local Veterans groups. They brought those to a meeting with Sylvia Nugent, then Chief of Staff for U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, who represented Amarillo and Texas’s 13th Congressional District until 2021.
The presentation got Thornberry’s attention. “Maybe, at some point, I’d heard there was a Medal of Honor winner
from our neck of the woods, but if I knew that, it didn’t really register,” Thornberry says today. He’s no longer in office, having announced in 2019 he would not run for reelection in 2020.
Back then, the Veterans asked if Thornberry could help find a way to honor Thomas E. Creek. “I think the key thing for me was it really originated by Veterans in Amarillo and the Panhandle area. They’re the ones who came to me and said, ‘We’ve got this Medal of Honor winner. We need to do a better job of honoring him and reminding people about why he won the Medal of Honor, and we think it would be a good idea to name our VA after him,’” Thornberry remembers. “It really became a cause I believed in.”
It was a lengthy, complicated process, but Thornberry brought the idea to the U.S. House Committee on Veterans
Affairs, and eventually introduced legislation to rename the VA in Tom’s honor. It was signed into law in 2004.
“I think it is really important to tell the story,” says the former politician, who served as Chair of the United States House Committee on Armed Services from 2015 to 2019. “In some way, naming a first-rate facility to care for Veterans after him is appropriate, but in other ways you can never do enough.” Keeping the name Thomas E. Creek in the public eye doesn’t just honor Tom’s memory, Thornberry says, but can inspire the public. “There are other ways to honor him, but to me the most important thing is to find an excuse or a way to tell his story—especially to younger people in the Panhandle—because it’s a story of somebody just like them who did extraordinary things
when he was called upon,” he adds.
Several local residents have the same mindset, and continue to tell that story. Jeff Williams is a local musician, voiceover artist, chiropractor and the owner of Creek Stone Integrated Medical. Several years ago, he heard about Tom’s heroism from someone who had attended school with Tom. Then Williams met Ross and Kris Creek.
He just couldn’t stop thinking about it. “I’m taken aback that his story’s not better known in Amarillo,” he says. “It’s
upsetting.” Watching the 2018 Netflix documentary Medal of Honor fueled that passion. That program tells the stories of Medal of Honor recipients with dramatic re-enactments of their sacrifices, followed by an exploration of the ways their hometowns honored them in the aftermath.
“Why don’t we have a Thomas Creek street [in Amarillo]?” Williams asks. “Why don’t we have a section of I-40 named the ‘Thomas E. Creek Memorial Highway’? Why don’t we have a park named after him with maybe a statue? We have statues of other people.”
He’s asked these questions of multiple city and state politicians over the years. He’s written letters to local school districts. When Amarillo ISD discussed changing the controversial name of Robert E. Lee Elementary School in 2018, Williams formally suggested it be named after Thomas E. Creek. (The school’s name was shortened to Lee Elementary.)
He appreciates that the VA is named after Tom, but that was a congressional decision. Williams believes the city can and should do more. “I just can’t get past the idea that nothing has been done of real significance by our city to honor him,” he says. “We honor a lot of people, but he’s as deserving of recognition as anyone who has ever lived in this town—if not more. He did something special. I feel it very strongly.”
Williams is not alone in that opinion. Several years ago, he suggested to Ross and Kris that they set up a Facebook page dedicated to Thomas E. Creek. Called “I’ve Got It Mac,” the Thomas E. Creek Memorial page has more than 700 members and continues to advocate on behalf of Amarillo’s lone Medal of Honor recipient.
Meanwhile, the local VA tells his story.
The Texas Panhandle War Memorial and Education Center tells his story.
The Hall of Fame at Palo Duro High School tells his story.
Signage at Llano Cemetery, where Tom is buried, tells his story.
Ross and Kris Creek keep telling his story. “We love to talk about Tom,” Kris says.
And last year, Amarillo ISD showed an emotional video about Tom at each of the four high school graduations.
More than 50 years after the heroism of Thomas E. Creek, the story is finally getting told. But is it enough? Will it ever be enough?
“All of us need to hear these stories over and over again,” says Mac Thornberry about Thomas E. Creek. “Not only do they honor him, but they call us to be a higher and better version of ourselves.”
ABOUT THE MEDAL OF HONOR
The highest and most prestigious award given within the United States Armed Forces, the Medal of Honor recognizes service members who have distinguished themselves through acts of valor, showing courage and sacrifice above and beyond the call of duty. More than 3,500 Medals of Honor have been awarded since its creation in 1861 by President Abraham Lincoln—and more than 40 percent of those came during the Civil War. It is the oldest continuously issued combat decoration in the U.S. military.
Of the 40 million Americans who have served, fewer than .01 percent have received the Medal of Honor. As in the case of Thomas E. Creek, around a third of those Medals of Honor were awarded posthumously.
The new National Medal of Honor Museum is set to open in 2025 in Arlington, Texas, and will include a Thomas E. Creek display.
WREATHS ACROSS AMERICA
In the 1990s, facing a surplus of wreaths at the end of the Christmas season, a wreath-maker from Maine decided to place them on graves at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. It became a tradition, and by 2007, the man’s family had launched Wreaths Across America, a nonprofit dedicated to remembering and honoring Veterans by placing wreaths at their gravesites in December.
This year, National Wreaths Across America Day is on Dec. 16, and the local Molly Goodnight Chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution is hoping to decorate Veterans’ graves at Llano Cemetery. “We work hard every year to place as many wreaths as possible, but there are almost 7,000 Veteran wreaths in Llano cemetery,” says Gaye Sougstad of the DAR Molly Goodnight chapter. “But every wreath counts!”
When a volunteer like Sougstad places the wreath on the marker of a hero, that person then speaks the Veteran’s name aloud, ensuring that their legacy of service and sacrifice is never forgotten.
An individual wreath sponsorship is $17 and can be made at wreathsacrossamerica.org/TX1033P.