Today, I thought I’d visit with Old Man Jack for a while. I didn’t drive my supercharged and unmufflered Grabber Orange Mustang to visit him although he loved it so much. It looked like rain. But I did take a cigar with me.
I know he didn’t mind the cigar.
He said it “doesn’t smell much better than the stinkin’ islands…but anything smelled better than those stinkin’ islands”.
He would reminisce much more frequently about the war on those islands when it involved “fun memories” and I recalled one while chatting with him today at his grave. Believe me, whether it be a “fun” memory or not, a tear or two always tags along.
Old Man Jack always described the islands in the Southwest Pacific to be “those stinkin’ islands”. He had said that while things always stunk, “everything smelled like shit”. Pardon the French but those are the words expressed by the now old man who was back then a young boy of nineteen. Hell, put it into perspective. That spoiled young singer Justin Bieber is nineteen. I’ll leave it at that.
“When I got there, I wondered why things smelled like shit,” he said with his trademark grin. The one where the left corner of his mouth rises. “Well, I was a dumb shit punk myself back then.”
We had been touring the mock up of the CV-6 carrier deck (USS Enterprise) at the Chino Planes of Fame Museum back in 2003. Our friendship had begun solidifying by then. I had taken him there primarily to see his beloved F4U Corsair so this was a side trip at the museum.
On the “flight deck” was a Douglass SBD-5 Dauntless dive bomber.
One thing he immediately spit out was after seeing the plane was, “That rear seat is just a metal plate. You sat on your parachute for a cushion…” He then continued, “…and those were twin .30’s back there.”
He told me once a Navy dive bomber pilot “grabbed him by the collar” early on and told him to get into the rear seat “quick-like”. I remember asking him why because at that time, I didn’t know he was certified to fly. In typical Old Man Jack fashion, he quipped, “‘Cuz I was the only one there.” Accent on the “there”, please.
“Well, we were flying up there. Man, that parachute made for a lousy cushion,” he said. “Then a Zero got on our six…and then I saw these little flashes. I figured out real quick he was shooting at us.” Jack’s still got that grin on his face.
“The pilot yelled, Shoot, you son of a bitch! Shoot! Shoot! So I did.”
“The pilot kept yelling, Shoot! Shoot!“. Then I yelled, “I did! I did!”
He wasn’t afraid to say it. Jack said he got so scared he just laid on the triggers and didn’t let go. There was only about 15 seconds worth of rounds. He had fired off all his ammo.
“Man, I heard every god damn cuss word from that pilot,” he chuckled, still with that trademark grin.
But then he ended it by saying, “…And whoo-ee, I crapped in my pants… And that’s how I figured out why everything smelled like shit.”
I never asked him what happened to that Zero…or if they successfully dropped their bomb…or what happened to that Navy pilot.
But one thing is for sure. I would have liked to have seen Justin Bieber in that back seat behind those twin .30s.
I’m sure his voice would get even higher…permanently…and would have needed a diaper change.
Real men don’t wear diapers. Jack sure as hell didn’t. He just shit in his pants and wasn’t ashamed to admit it.
I enjoyed our chat today, Jack.
And I’ll be sure to drive the Mustang next time so you can hear it.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
“Koji, don’t let anyone tell you different. War makes good boys do crazy things.”
That was the first time Old Man Jack shared something with me about the war in a voice of unfeigned remorse. In turn, it was one of my first journeys in his time machine in which he allowed me to ride along.
Front row seats. Free of charge.
It was in 2002 to the best of my recollection. It was just before my littlest firecracker was born.
KA-BAR. If you are a World War II US Marine who served on “those stinkin’ islands”, there is no explanation necessary.
A KA-BAR was a Marine’s most prized personal possession. It was always at their side.
They opened their C-rations with it. Dug foxholes with it. Chopped coconut logs with it. Hammered nails with it. Indestructible.
Most importantly, for killing. Designed for slashing and stabbing. Desperate hand-to-hand combat. To the death.
The KA-BAR served them so well that many Marines who survived passed it down to their children.
Old Man Jack said several times, “I’ll tell ya – us white caps always tussled with the Marines ‘cuz they thought they were better than us…but there wasn’t anyone better at protecting your sorry asses with theirs when it came time.”
(If you are prone to nausea, you should not continue to read this Old Man Jack story.)
I did not know this free ride was coming. It was unexpected and spontaneous. I recall that clearly.
That afternoon, he began describing something vile he witnessed during the war. Today, I fully realize he was trying to vomit demons out from his soul.
He needed to.
He didn’t tell me what island; that would be his pattern up until his death. If he was talking about something a young man should never have witnessed, he would never say what island he was on. However, my educated guess as to the year would be late 1943 or early 1944.
Old Man Jack said to the best of my recollection that “…the Japs broke through our perimeter”.
“When the fighting broke out, most of us (the ground crew servicing Marine Corsairs) dove straight into the nearest foxholes. I only had a .45 and I kept my head down except for a dumb ass split second or two…” He tried to mimic what he did by extending his neck a bit and flicking his head left and right.
“All hell was breaking loose. Men were screaming all over the place. You could tell which rounds were from us and which ones were theirs.”
It was all over in a couple of minutes, Jack said. “I did hear moaning then a CRACK from a .45 or a M1…” A Marine apparently dispensed a wounded enemy soldier.
“I got up. There was still a little yelling going on. And I ain’t ashamed to say I started shaking real bad. Then I see this kid (i.e., a Marine) dragging this wounded Jap; he was hit pretty bad but I could tell he was still alive. The Marine grabbed his KA-BAR and sliced open that son-of-a-bitch’s mouth. I could see the Jap was flinching. The kid was trying to gouge out gold (from his teeth).”
Another Marine came over and shot the Jap dead with his .45. The kid yelled, ‘Hey! Why’d you have to go do that for?!’
The other Marine just looked at him for a split second and walked away. I stopped looking.”
Jack then just slowly shook his head.
I remember Old Man Jack was looking down when he finished. He had on a grey sweatshirt as winter was coming on.
Front row seats in his time machine of nightmares. He just forgot to mention it was on his roller coaster he kept hidden inside.
He had other free tickets for me in the years that followed.
One of the few times Old Man Jack would tell me what island something happened on, it would be humorous – as humorous as he could make it.
He HAD to laugh off some of the horror. He needed to survive being under attack by his own thoughts.
On January 16, 2011, eleven months before he passed away, we decided to go to Denny’s for breakfast. He hated that place – except for their (gawd awful) coffee. He loved their coffee. And he complained about the coffee on the islands. Imagine that. Denny’s coffee couldn’t have tasted that much different. Denny’s uses ocean water, too, you know, for their distinctive flavor. Perhaps that is why he liked their coffee.
“Green Island” was Jack’s last combat station when he earned enough points to be rotated back home. He told me when they yelled out his name, he just ran straight onto this makeshift pier where a PBy was starting up. He jumped in wearing only his shorts and boots. They took off. He was on his way home.
(Click here if you wish to see official US Navy photos of Green Island when Old Man Jack was stationed there.)
In my internet research, I did come across some detailed battle history of Green Island. I printed it out and not knowing how he would react (even after 11 years of friendship), I presented it to him before the (gawd awful) coffee came. I didn’t want him to be TOO alert in case things didn’t go well. 🙂
Well, you can see his reaction. He was “tickled and pickled” I went through the trouble.
During breakfast, he told me about one detail he was assigned to on Green Island – the digging of new holes for latrines. Never mind my eggs were over-easy. But he’s gone through hell whereas I was spared. This was everyday fare for him.
He told me he picked out two “dumb new guys” who thought they knew everything for the detail. They went out where the other “used up” latrines were. He ordered them to start digging new holes in this hard coral-like stuff not too far from the other “used up” holes while he “supervised”.
I knew I would get his goat if I interrupted him. That was part of the fun.
So I interrupted him. For fun.
“Jack…dig? Why didn’t you just have them make a small hole then throw in a grenade?”
Well, I asked for it… in Denny’s… on a busy Saturday morning.
“You dumb shit,” he declared with that boyish grin. “YOU could have been one of the dumb new guys. YOU would have fit right in. We didn’t need any more craters! We had LOTS of craters – all around us! So we dug holes like we were ordered to. So shut up and listen!”
Whooo-ee. That was fun… in Denny’s… on a busy Saturday morning.
I never asked him if he read the history on Green Island. Later on, though, Old Man Jack said he had wanted to go back to those “stinkin’ islands” just to see. It felt as if he wanted to let some demons out.
He never made it back.
Perhaps he’s there now saluting his young buddies he had to leave behind.
It was Monday, Valentines’ Day 2001. My wife was five months pregnant at the time we moved into this wonderful neighborhood smothered in US Naval glory. After I came back from work the next day, she told me a kind old man stopped her as she was wheeling out the trash bin. She said he hobbled from across our quiet street lined with peppercorn trees then kindly wheeled them out for her.
I found out the “old man” was a World War II combat vet. Worse yet, he was a sailor in the Pacific – he fought the Japanese in World War II.
“Holy crap,” flashed through my mind, “What if he finds out we’re Japanese?”
Twelve years later, I was honored to have been a pallbearer at his funeral.
I was so far off base about my first thoughts on Old Man Jack that even George Burns could have picked me off without being called for a balk…and this while he was in his grave.
I felt so ashamed.
“Young man, get over here and plant your butt in that chair,” barked old man Jack from his cluttered garage across the street. Having lived in that house since 1953, it was filled with his life history.
“But I have my stogie going, Jack,” said I.
“Well, I can see it and I sure as hell can smell it. Now shut up and sit down. I want to tell you something.”
That was Old Man Jack, my dear neighbor who lived across the street. I like to think we were close.
He was 87 years old by that summer’s day in 2010 when he called me over. While he had become feeble, his barrel chest was still prominent. He was a rabble-rouser in his youth. He was always “mixing it up” throughout his young years… Well, he was mixing it up even while working at Northrup in the 50’s. That makes me grin.
His handshake was always firm and warm; you didn’t need to be psychic to sense his insight and outlook on life. He always spoke his mind. He earned that right having been shot at, strafed, and bombed on “those stinkin’ islands” as he so often said during a most bitter war.
I had invited Jack to Father’s Day dinner that summer just two years ago; my Dad who was 91 was coming as well.
Jack knew my dad was US Army but I fretted over what they would say to each other when they first met. Or how they would react to one another. It was more than just a concern over the centuries old rivalry between Army and Navy. It was the bitter war.
Dad was in the front room when Jack rang the bell – right on time as always. Jack had on his favorite blue plaid shirt; he wore it often as it had a pocket for his glasses. I often wondered how often he washed it, though. Jack and Dad are shown here on Father’s Day 2010.
“Dad,” I said, “This is Jack, US Navy, Aviation Machinist’s Mate, First Class, the Pacific.”
“Jack, this is my Dad. US 8th Army, sergeant, Military Intelligence Service.”
Although not as agile as they once were, they immediately saluted each other.
You didn’t need a sound system to hear them. Dad and Jack are both hard of hearing.
It was easy to hear Jack ask Dad what he did in the Army. During the Occupation of Japan, Dad said he went into a room once a week that reeked of dry cleaning to retrieve a crate. (The crates contained documents, photos and other personal items such as war diaries written by Japanese soldiers. They were removed from a WWII battlefield – read on.) He would then translate the contents for military intelligence (below).
I had to tend to cooking so I lost track of the conversation. It was regretful I didn’t keep tuned in.
So back to being called over by Jack. He was sitting in his favorite blue wheelchair. He didn’t need it but it belonged to his beloved wife Carol who passed away ten years before. They married during the waning days of the war. They had been married for 55 strong years.
“So what did you want to tell me, Jack?” I asked.
He then went into his trance – one signaling evident anguish and remembrances. When he went into these trances, he always started by staring at his hands while picking at his right thumbnail with his left ring finger. He would lift his once thick eyebrows then begin talking in a slow, deliberate pace, never taking his eyes off his hands.
“I went on ID patrol…” Jack whispered while ever so slightly drawing out his words.
“ID patrol? What is that?” I asked.
“They would issue six of us white caps M1’s with bayonets… Then we’d follow two Marines on a patrol into the jungle.”
“Patrol? You? You were ground crew, Jack,” I remarked.
“Ain’t enough of them (Marines) to go around on those stinkin’ islands so we got picked,” he said, still speaking in a lifeless yet pained monotone. He added, “If you got killed, you rotted real quick in that jungle heat. And if you got killed with shit in your pants, you got buried with shit in your pants.”
His stare doesn’t change. His eyes have glassed over. He is in a different world now – one of 70 years ago in a stifling jungle, his sweaty hands trying to grip onto his rifle while wearing a smelly steel helmet. Listening in terror for any sound that may signal a Japanese soldier concealed in ambush. A world that only combat veterans understand. Thankfully, you and I never will. Never.
“The Marines had two bags – one small one and a big one. When we found one, the two Marines would stand guard. We’d hold the rifle by the butt end and use the fixed bayonet to fish out the tags.”
I then realized what he was painfully regurgitating. They were going back into the jungle to locate the dead Marines they had to leave behind after a “tussle” with the enemy as Jack liked to say – a life or death firefight. Jack was only 20 years old. The Marines were likely younger. Ponder that thought.
“We weren’t allowed to touch the dead (Marine) as the Japs would booby-trap ‘em. We’d hand over the tags hanging on the the end of the bayonet to one of the Marines who would put a tag in the small bag. They marked a map for the graves registration guys to come back later.”
Jack’s anguished delivery dimmed even further. “But we’d come across a dead Jap. Nobody cared about them so they rotted where they were. But we’d have to stick the bayonet into the rotting goo and try to fish stuff out. The prize was a pouch or a satchel. Those would go into the big duffel bag just as they were, covered with rot and maggots. We headed back to CP and that’s the last I saw of those bags,” he said.
He abruptly ended but his unconscious stare didn’t change. He was still in the jungle, scared out of his wits. He was still picking at his thumbnail all this time. His head hardly moved while he sat in the blue wheelchair that belonged to his beloved wife.
I thought to myself, “Is that the end, Jack? That’s it? Why did you tell me this?” I knew not to pry any more so I kept the thoughts to myself. He was in torment already. Seventy years had passed but he was reliving the awfulness of a brutal war. Nevertheless, I wondered why he chose that time to tell me about this horrific recall of something he experienced so very young.
It bugged me for several weeks.
About a month later, I understood why Jack told me the story. Apparently, the items they recovered from Japanese corpses were dry cleaned to remove the rotting body fluids. After getting dry cleaned, they ended up in the crates that were in the room my Dad went into once a week when he was in the Military Intelligence Service…and why the room reeked of dry cleaning.
The brief chat with my dad on Father’s Day sparked that vile memory back to life. It had been eating at him since that day. He wanted to get it off his once mightily barreled chest.
I lament to this day that an invitation to a Father’s Day dinner had resulted in an unwanted recall of horror Jack was very much trying to forget. More so, I lament he relived such horrors each night for the last 70 years of his life. Seventy years.
Jack was a great man to have endured combat in the Pacific during World War II. He was an immeasurable giant in learning to forgive – although he was never able to forget.
I miss him greatly. I thanked him for all we have when I visited him today at his grave on this glorious Memorial Day.
Short Stories about World War II. One war. Two Countries. One Family