Tag Archives: Solomons

Old Man Jack-ism #6 – The Zero


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I stopped by with a cigar to visit with Jack today.  I hoped there will be others visiting given the date and holiday season…

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”.

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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.”

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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.

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Jack in 2003 with the Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless behind him.  You can make out his boyish grin.

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.”

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A WWII period photo of rear gunner and the twin .30 caliber machine guns.

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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.

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I enjoyed our chat today, Jack.

And I’ll be sure to drive the Mustang next time so you can hear it.

Miss you.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Mr. Johnson, USMC – Part III


I figured if Mr. Johnson wanted to tell me more, he would have.

But as with Old Man Jack, I never asked for more.

I believe that’s how these combat vets want it.

They don’t want to be quizzed about what they said or asked to describe more.

They will tell you some things of what they experienced.  Probably to let the devils out that have been eating away at them for 70 years.

They have a built in limiter to keep more memories from popping back up…the things they saw or did that they try so hard to suppress to stay sane.  Every minute for the rest of their lives.

They deserve that respect.  Always.  And you feel honored they felt enough confidence in your character that you would accept what they were telling you as is.

I feel they appreciated that.

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I was alone with Old Man Jack during visitation. It was good as I was able to say good-bye in private… The mortuary didn’t invest in good quality Kleenex, though.

Mr. Johnson and I walked together into the little chapel where Old Man Jack’s funeral service was being held.  His flag-draped coffin was proudly presented up front.

It was mostly relatives as all his friends had passed away before him.  I felt distant as I don’t recall ever seeing them visiting with Old Man Jack.  But they were relatives.

Mr. Johnson and I were likely the only ones there outside of family besides a daughter of one of his fellow employees from the old Northrop plant.  We had met once when Old Man Jack was in ICU from a tremendously bad intestinal infection.

His only daughter Karen was busy going over things with the reverend.  You will have to excuse me if I used the wrong term for him; it was a Christian service and I am not.

Mr. Johnson and I sat next to each other in the back row.

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Here is Old Man Jack on our tiny patio deck, in his trademark blue plaid shirt losing another “chat” with his only child, Karen. I’m sure – in spite of his boasts – he lost to his lovely wife in a similar fashion through the years… Hence, “A man ain’t got a chance.

Karen finally approached us.  It was good to see her again.  I hadn’t seen her since she moved Old Man Jack up to their mountain home just five months earlier.

We greeted and it was already tough not to shed a tear.  She then said, “Koji, we have enough young relatives here to be pallbearers but I know you and dad were close.  I think he would like it very much if you would be one of his pallbearers.”

I looked at Mr. Johnson.  I guess I was unknowingly seeking his acceptance knowing they both fought a bitter war together.

Mr. Johnson smiled and nodded his head as if he knew I was asking him if it would be OK.

It was emotional.  My eye plumbing was already leaking a bit before but it broke loose.

After Old Man Jack fought on “those stinkin’ islands” and had nightmares for the remainder of his life, I was now going to help carry this great American on his last journey.

I kept the gloves in memory of Old Man Jack and the honor he allowed me.

It is a mark of the Greatest Generation.  Forgiveness.  Honor to the end.

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Just a short vid of the flag presentation to Jack’s daughter.  (I apologize for the video quality but they only sell the video cameras with the little swing out screen now.  It’s hard to get used to and hard to see the image in bright sun…and impossible to hold still…but towards the end, you can see Mr. Johnson sitting right behind her.)

I wondered what was going through Mr. Johnson’s mind after saying to me earlier “…funerals don’t do a damn thing for me anymore”.

He didn’t get teary-eyed once.  A true Marine, I thought.  I also briefly felt he had his mind on other pressing matters.

I was about to find out.

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After the ceremony, I helped Mr. Johnson back to my car.  He hadn’t said much at all nor showed ANY emotion.

I opened the car door for him; it would be a struggle for him to get back into my low-slung machine with his bad back and unsteady legs.

But he stopped short of getting in.  He towered over the roof of the car as he was standing on the curb next to other graves.  I remember clearly his right arm was on the roof of the car and his left was seeking support from the top of the passenger door glass.

Then he spoke.

“Koji, I’m sorry I was so curt with you in the car…when I said funerals don’t do a damn for me anymore.  I hope you’ll let me explain why.”

I didn’t know what was coming.  He continued but he had that look on his face.  The same glassed-over gaze Old Man Jack had when he was going to talk about something he was trying to forget.

“Koji, the Japs jumped us and they jumped us good.  Real good.  We were caught out in the open.  We had fighter cover but there was just a shit load of them.  Just too many.  They were coming down at us from every which way.”

He mimicked with his right hand that he had elevated towards the sky toy planes – just like we did when we were kids.  But these weren’t toys that day.  He was reliving a battle…but he didn’t say where or when.  Just like Old Man Jack.

“They just kept coming and coming.  We took a bad licking.  A real bad one.  We just kept reloading and firing at them.

We lost a lot of good men.”

He stopped for a moment.  He never once said he was on the Big E.

“I got put in charge of the Burial Detail.  There weren’t too many of us left that could get around.”  He was, I assume, talking about his fellow Marines.  He was a Private at that time and at the Battle of Santa Cruz; you will find out later how I discovered that.  But it’s not good when a young Marine private who was in boot camp just months earlier gets put in charge of a burial detail on board the greatest lady of the sea.

“I don’t know who the son-of-a-bitches were.  They were wrapped up in canvas and a shell would be put inside at their feet to weight them down.  Then we’d dump them over the side.  We’d salute.  Then we’d do it again…and again…and again.  I don’t remember how many times I saluted.  I didn’t keep count.  But that’s why funerals don’t do much for me anymore.  I had been in enough of them.”

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I was left humbled and voiceless.  Too late I realized Mr. Johnson WAS having sickening thoughts running through his mind – from the time when I asked him to help hold ME together.

And I was ignorant to even think he had his mind on other pressing matters during the funeral.

With that selfish request, I instead helped unleash some vile memories within him.

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Mr. Johnson himself would pass away shortly thereafter.

More to come in Part IV.  I hope you’ll stay tuned.