A very, VERY proud Jack Garrett, AMM 1/C showing off his barrel chest as best he could.

Old Man Jack’s Love

“She’s the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” said Old Man Jack in a trembling voice and with very wet eyes.

On March 3, 2003.  Truly.

______________________

He was referring to the F4U Corsair.  I had taken him to the Chino Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, CA.  The WWII aircraft there – all of them – fly.

That’s right.  They get up in the air.

Planes that were engineered with a minimal lifespan as they were meant for combat were still spinning their props for the men who flew them – or worked on them.

Old Man Jack was one of them.

Do you know what these beautiful planes look like?  What they may have sounded like to Old Man Jack 70 years ago?  Ever see one fly?

In case you haven’t figured it out, his Corsair is “on the tail” of a famed Zero of the Imperial Japanese Navy in this mock dogfight.  I filmed it almost ten years ago at an air show there at Chino Planes of Fame.

______________________

Old Man Jack was an “AMM 1/C” during WWII, or “Aviation Machinist Mate First Class”.  He could have re-upped after the war and been promoted to Chief Petty Officer but like Mrs. Johnson, Carol would have none of that.

I am not positively sure as Old Man Jack would only give tidbits here and there but he was responsible for the aircraft.  Before flight – and while remembering this was at the front lines on “those stinkin’ islands” – he would get into the cockpit and make sure all essential bells and whistles worked after his crew worked on it all night.  I also believe he was to pilot one on occasion to maintain his certs.  Very simplistically said on my part.

National Archives 127-N-55431
US Navy ground crew servicing a Corsair on what appears to be Guadalcanal – where Old Man Jack was.  National Archives 127-N-55431

The pilot was headed off into harm’s way.  The pilot’s life depended on Jack and his crew.  It’s airworthiness.

But one thing is for certain – Old Man Jack said many times “there just weren’t enough spare parts so we had to make do.”

______________________

But back to the story…

Our friendship had begun to solidify by then…  I had mentioned to him that I was a member of the museum and that he wouldn’t have to worry about me paying for his entry.  But that wasn’t why he hesitated.  You will see why.  And I found out later myself why he was so hesitant.

Back then, the museum’s WWII hangars were divided into the two main theaters of operation: the European and the Pacific – where Old Man Jack was stationed during the thick of things.

We meandered through the European Theater hangar.  He recognized them right away.  The P-51.  The P-47.  Others.

He had brought along his “walking chair”; it was light and when folded up, it was a walking aid.  If you press down on it a certain way, it would spread out into a little chair.  Well, he was doing good…and I was happy.

______________________

To get to the Pacific Theater hangar, you would leave the European Theater hangar and mosey across a tarmac.

Chino Planes of Fame and "X" marks the spot.
Chino Planes of Fame and “X” marks the spot.

It was a hot day.  Old Man Jack was in a t-shirt.  Blue, of course.

We were slowly making it across the tarmac.  I knew a Corsair was in there – pretty as the day she rolled off the assembly line.  As the hangar door was cracked open, you could see the wing spar.

Then Old Man Jack stopped.  At the white “X” marked in the map above.  Dead in his tracks.

He propped open his chair.

He sat down.

I was wondering if he was tired.  We were out in the sun.  Why’d he stop there?

I walked back to him.  His hands that still firmly shook your hands were on his knees.  His head was bowed down.

Then I saw it.

His shoulders were shuddering a bit at first, then began to bob up and down.

The man who had a barrel chest…the man who worked on these planes as a young man…was crying.

Deeply.  No sounds.  He was holding it in…

_________________________

I walked away.

I think he cried quietly for about a couple of minutes.  Out there on the tarmac.  In the sun.

Old Man Jack then straightened up.  He wiped his eyes.

“Young man, earn your pay.  Give me your hand and help me up.”

Old Man Jack was back.

_________________________

We walked over to her – Jack’s beloved Corsair.  His eyes were still wet.

I remember him saying very quietly while trying very hard to hold back his now visible anguish, “I knew a lot of young boys who flew them,” his voice cracking with 70 years of nightmares tormenting him.  “Some of them just didn’t come back.  I could never stop thinking, ‘Did a Jap get him… or was it me?'”

Nothing more need be said.

A very, VERY proud Jack Garrett, AMM 1/C showing off his barrel chest as best he could.
A very, VERY proud Jack Garrett, AMM 1/C showing off his barrel chest as best he could.

_________________________

That’s when he told me she was the most beautiful girl in the sky.  But like any woman, she was a pain to keep happy.

“We didn’t wear shirts because it was so _ucking hot; I’d burn my stomach and chest on that hot metal.”  He pointed at the wing spar (the bottom of the “gull wing”) and said, “We would always slip on those damn spars.  You never had good footing.”

He then recollected other things.  He told me “We’d stick a shotgun shell into a breech under the cowling and fire it off to turn over the engine.”  As I surely didn’t know much better back then, I asked why.  “Because the dumb son-of-a-bitch who designed the plane didn’t put in a starter.  That’s why.”  Oh, boy (with a smile).  “And if she didn’t turn over, you only had a couple more tries at it before you had to let it cool off.”

Old Man Jack then smiled a bit when he admitted he fell off the wing while taxiing once.  “Like a dumb smart ass kid, I stood up on the wing when the pilot was taxiing.  You were taught to lay on the wing to point which way to go but (the wing’s surface) was too damn hot so I stood up.  We hit a bump and off I came.”  (Note: the Corsair’s nose was long to accommodate the powerful engine.  It was so long that it obscured the pilot’s forward view during taxi and landing.)

One more thing he said.  “There was nothing better than seeing the flight come back after a patrol at wave top, do victory rolls then peel off.”  He was a bit choked up.

_________________________

When we got home, he said to me, “I didn’t know how I would react if I saw something and that’s why I put you off in going.  But I feel good about it now.  Thank you, young man.”

He gave me that solid Jack Garrett handshake…and a hug.

I think he enjoyed the visit…and no better way to end my first six months of blogging.

51 thoughts on “Old Man Jack’s Love”

  1. Koji that was wonderfully told. Old Man Jack breaks my heart. All at the same time you paint him as the young man he was and the old man he felt like…. I can’t imagine his anguish, or his pride.

    You are a magnificent friend Koji.

  2. I truly enjoyed this blog, I have always liked the looks of the corsair and how beautiful they looked as they flew. I admire the men who worked on them to keep them air born.

      1. No sir I am a Viet Nam Veteran and was in The US Navy instead of working on plains I worked on the engines of small boats. I just admire old air planes well I should say all air planes.

  3. Great story Koji. My Dad spoke of worrying about whether his work prevented any of “the boys” from making it back too. I think Dad and the rest of the crews did an incredible job considering the circumstances. Heat, moisture, dirt, lack of parts, food, rest, etc. and of course being shot at and bombed.

    Dad also taxied and tested his aircraft, I don’t know if the Navy was different from the Army in that regards. He spoke about getting “checked out” to do so. I know he did at least with the P-39 and I’m pretty sure with the P-38 because Dad had learned to fly pre-war and worked on B-18’s which were dual engines, then B-17’s when he was sent back to the States. Keith

    1. I think the duties were quite similar, Keith. They needed to be “up to speed” on flying; otherwise, they would have no meaning by being a plane captain. He did fly in combat a number of times as well as being sent to Kiska to salvage much needed parts.

  4. Old Man Jack strikes me as someone I would love to know. My father-in-law flew planes over the Hump into China during WWII and my son flew helicopters for the Marines in iraq. (He now flies for the Coast Guard out of Kodiak.) Their lives depended (and with Tony, depend) on the skill and care of the mechanics.

  5. Fantastic story ! Love it ! I truly believe a person’s soul never grows old; their spirit is always young. Time can’t touch a person’s soul. That’s how I think of Old Man Jack, and everyone else whose life is based on a belief in God and living an honest and giving life.

    The F4U Corsair and the P51 Mustang, in that order, are the 2 greatest fighters of WWII. Both set records and saved many many lives. They are beautiful ! They are my 2 favorite WWII planes.

    1. Such great words, sir. Thank you. That is Old Man Jack til the end.

      And as great as the Corsair was, Old Man Jack made a comment quite a few years back that if he had to fly into a mess of Zeroes, he’d “frankly” prefer to pilot a Hellcat… Not that he ever said he serviced one but because he saw one all shot to hell but it brought the pilot back home safely. The Corsair would have been in the drink, as he put it. Still, beautiful planes, both of them. And my user ID is normally… P47koji. I wonder why! 🙂

  6. What a wonderful day this must have been, to give this dear man the opportunity to relive some of his memories and to feel proud of his role in the war effort. The photo of him standing in front of the Corsair is magnificent. And I didn’t know about this museum. It sounds like a wonderful place!

    1. He was apprehensive at first as I tried to say… and after seeing him quietly sob, I realized how ignorant I was. It did cause him to remember things and I was worried while there… but in the end, I feel it was good. Only he knew for sure… He did tell me of other experiences he had. One somewhat funny, and another not.

  7. Koji …. wonderful account of your day with Jack at the Chino Planes of Fame Museum and again thank you for sharing Jack with us. Koji, I believe that everyone we meet in life, no matter how inconsequential the meeting or time spent in one’s presence, is meant to be and that we each serve and guide each other on our earthbound journey … and so I feel that with you and Jack that you each were teachers to one another … placed perfectly in each your own timeline when you were needed most by one another. I couldn’t help but feel an added connection to this story myself, since my son is also an aviation mechanic and I felt that he must have shared some of the very same thoughts that Jack had during time of battle. I was reading and thinking about Jack’s reaction to seeing his Corsair and it crossed my mind that 70 years from now (when I’m long gone) that I hope my son will also in his end days find a noble and kind man such as you to help him remember/share his war experience if needed. That would be a blessing to him … such as you were a blessing to Jack.

    The one time Johnny was able to take us in to the hanger at C.P. I was truly awestruck … at the beauty of the Birds he worked on …. I kept looking at him when he was talking and thinking “You are responsible for this?!” So when Jack questioned whether those who did not return did not do so because of battle or because of him … well, how very heavy that must weigh on ones mind … what a responsibility given to a young man of 20 years only.

    Here’s a couple of pictures … Johnny loves talking with and being in the company of Veterans.
    UH-1Y Yankee & my son - photo jeannerene
    UH-1Y Yankee - photo jeannerene

    God Bless you, Jack. And, Koji, I really do hope that someone like you will come into Johnny’s life when the time is needed.

    1. What a most touching comment, jeannerene… Most touching. Your son will be surrounded by friends and their offspring. Perhaps by that time, unmanned aircraft may be a (dehumanizing) component of war. Perhaps the offspring will ask Johnny, “Uncle Johnny, tell me what they sounded like!”

      Same with your father… Johnny was there for him. And Chatter Master was there for her WWII vet as another example.

      Rest assured, jeannerene!…and thank you so much for your heartfelt words… 😉

  8. Koji, you are an excellent writer. Jack was quite a guy. Your narrative about his times and trials is a memorial to those of his generation. To think that back in the 70s, these vets were still working and many were new grandparents (most having been born in the late teens and 1920s). I served with many WWII vets while in the Navy in the 60s. At the time, none of my contemporaries or I expressed much awe or really gave it much thought, we simply enjoyed a few beers together at the EM Club or Non-Com Club and joked about what was happening in Yokohama’s Chinatown. One of my good friends, Russ, an AE1 who was born in 1924, and I frequently went to Yokohama on the weekends. We started out drinking at bars near the U.S. Housing area in hopes of meeting some of the girls from the USA who would wonder in looking for dancing partners. So, there we were, me a 19 year-old guy having the time of my life drinking and out chasing women with a WWII vet who had served aboard one of the carriers in the South Pacific. That was in the autumn of 1961. He was only 37, still a young man. Today, if he is still living, he would be around 89. Time flys. I will never forget the night when Russ and I were in a club in Chinatown and met two young ladies who looked like Mitzi Gaynor and her twin sister. We asked them what state they were from. They looked at each other and began laughing. Russ told me to get ready for the surprise of my life. I asked him if they were Admiral’s daughters or something. They were drop-dead gorgeous and looked like they wanted to party. I was hardly able to maintain my self-control. They said something to Russ in Japanese. He nodded his understanding. I hadn’t realized Russ could speak Japanese and I asked him to tell them to speak English. He laughed. “Neither of them speak English,” he told me. “They are Japanese,” he said. “Well, sort of,” he added. “Anyway, they are way too young for us,” he said. “They are only 16,” he told me. Nevertheless, we bought them drinks. Russ told me they were products of the Occupation, their dads were American soldiers and never returned for them–or their mothers. I nodded. It was then that I understood why they spoke very little English.

    1. What a story, Robert…and indeed, how times change. How quickly you transition from youth to senior…and how we take things for granted when we were young. I wasn’t aware of abandoned children. I will need to inquire into that for my own education.

      1. Yes that was sad but true. It was difficult to bring a Japanese wife home to the US, and those children born out of wedlock were most certainly left behind. A sad chapter of the war.

  9. As you said, this was a most moving story. My dad was too young for WWII (plus he had flat feet), but he was a fanatic about it. Read all about it all the time, but never talked about that time. He had three brothers who were in the Marines. One was in a wheelchair. But I don’t know if it was from war injuries or something else (as he had MS). I only met him a couple of times. But I recall him fondly. None of my uncles ever talked about the war with me. Men didn’t back then. It’s touching to hear these stories of men my uncles’ ages. I see them in a new light. Thank you for that.

    1. It is 2:00 AM now! But if you wish to learn more about your uncles, there is a way to find out….. And if they saw war, they are unlikely to have talked about it as you read about Old Man Jack and Mr. Johnson. There are horrors they have bottled up inside and are fearful for letting them out…

      1. It is unfortunate that my uncles and my dad have all passed away. I have done some research via genealogy, but there isn’t much online. There is a good war records site that I may just sign up and see if I can get more info on where they were stationed. Not sure I could get their records as I am not a direct next of kin.

        Perhaps when I move I will have an Old Man Jack across the street. 🙂

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