I once met a man named Jack.
I was 15 and Jack was 85. The meeting was simple. I had to interview someone who had lived during WWII for a high school history project. He came to my parents' house, and we sat at the kitchen table and talked while I scribbled illegible notes and he pulled photo after photo out of his binder.
I had a list of interview questions provided by my history teacher, and he came well prepared with stories, photographs, newspaper clippings, and documents. But it's only now that I'm realizing exactly what story Jack had come prepared to tell.
Born in 1918, Jack grew up on a farm. His mother passed away early in his life, and when his father remarried, they didn't have room for everyone and he went to live with his aunt and uncle. In 1941, he married his beautiful wife Edith, the same year that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the US subsequently joined the war.
All around him, men were joining or being drafted into the military. Jack was never drafted, but he felt a sense of guilt, so in 1942, only 10 months after marrying Edith, he enlisted. In 1943 he began his work with the Navy in Camp Endicott, Davisville, RI.
He explained, "I felt it was necessary to join because if we didn't stop the Axis, then they would have overrun everybody. I don't like aggressiveness and terrorist ways because those people want power and as a result, many innocent people die and are affected. If we hadn't stopped the Axis, then their aggression would have been worldwide."
As a civilian, Jack worked as a fire watch on a boat. There, he learned to weld from an alcoholic welder. He became so skilled that when he joined the Navy, he was assigned to make gun mounts and bucket gun mounts for anti-aircraft guns. They placed him with the Seabees, a branch of the Navy that went ahead of the army and prepared a place for them to live and work. He spent 4 years serving his country.
Jack's Seabees unit worked all over the South Pacific, visiting places such as Vella Lavella, Guadalcanal, and Okinawa. They worked fiercely during the day to prepare the area for the arrival of the army, and spent their nights shooting at Japanese planes who were attempting to delay their progress. They ate K-rations, deer, fish, and turtles (depending on what island they were on). He remembered a visit from Bob Hope and that they fought in Vella Lavella, but the details of those days and nights weren't clear any more. "Experiences fade after a while," he explained, "and then they aren't as interesting any more."
His journals from the time tell a slightly different story, however.
"Saturday, Sept 11 1943.
"Last night was one of the worst nights we've spent since we've landed, as far as our raids are concerned. A raider came in from the NE corner of the strip, directly toward our tent, and dropped two bombs in rapid succession about 250 yards from our fox hole. The heaviest curtain of shell fire that I've ever seen kept the raider rather high thereafter. One of our fighters finally appeared and made it possible for us to get some sleep.
"Sunday, Sept 12, 1943.
"We had a much better night last night. There were several alerts but no raids. Our planes raised hell with Kolom - Ongara. They pattern-bombed it all night. Two Jap destroyers tried to make a landing on Vella Lavella during the night but were driven off by P.T. boats. Worked 1/2 day.
"Last night at 11:35 all hell broke loose. Tojo laid an egg/daisy cutter 15 ft from our tent and about 25 ft from our fox hole. Pat Begley never left his tent. A piece of shrapnel caught him in the right temple, splitting his head in half. Shattuck lost his right arm between the elbow and shoulder. Castner got his leg hurt by a shrapnel and his eye hurt making a dive for the fox hole. I got peppered by shrapnel in the leg, back, and shoulder. I was afraid to move either leg or arm for fear they wouldn't work. There is about 18 fellows injured + 8 tents blowed up. I'll never forget the nerve-shattering, ear-piercing blast of that bomb or the heart-breaking moans and cries of fellow mates in agony. Trees fell all the rest of the night due to the concussion."
Despite the hard work, despite the fear, and despite the loneliness, Jack kept going, fighting for a cause that he believed in. "I had an implicit faith in God," Jack told me, "because he was there all the time."
When asked, "What do you feel was the most significant moment during your time serving in WWII." He replied, "When I saw my friends and comrades die right next to me, I wondered why I wasn't next."
In January of 1945, Jack was awarded the Purple Heart for the wounds he received on Valla Lavella. A few months later, in October, Jack was honorably discharged, returned stateside, and began working at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey. He stayed there for 32 years. After his retirement he moved to Bath, NY where he wrote poetry, spoke at service organizations, and volunteered at the Bath VA.
He passed away on September 9, 2012.
His story is deep, profound, and moving, but it's not the only one. Hundreds of thousands of service men and women, of all races, faiths, and ideologies have served, fought, been wounded, and died to protect their country. And those that have returned deserve kindness, respect, and love.
I'm going to leave you with a poem, written by the wonderful and humble John (Jack) R. Williams, titled "Voices On A Hilltop."
Voices On A Hilltop
I climbed that Hill to be alone,
to gaze down at the scene below.
With a heavy heart and tear-filled eyes,
I beheld endless White Markers, row after row.
Each marked clearly with a Hero's name,
Name and Rank of AMERICA's best.
At last, with life's battles over,
Our Heroes, in GOD'S care, can Rest.
One's mind can never imagine
All the heartache, suffering, and pain
That's represented by each of the Markers
And the sound of the "TAPS" mournful refrain.
I sought to be alone on that hilltop,
But my efforts were all in vain,
the memories of Fallen Comrades
kept roaring through my brain.
As I glanced once again at those Markers,
a message seemed to tug at my heart.
Voices seemed to rise in unison:
"DO NOT FORGET ME, I'VE DONE MY PART."
Some of the Markers, in the form of a Cross,
Had a special meaning to me,
They brought the image of "Sacrifice,"
as the One on Calvary.
You don't have to be on that Hilltop
you can be anywhere, perhaps in a comfortable chair.
Just picture those rows of Markers,
Remember those Heroes in your prayers.
-John R. Williams, Shipfitter First Class (CW, USNR)
Disclaimer: This post was written using material from an interview which took place 12 years ago and an essay written by a 15-year-old. If you see an error, let me know and I'll do my best to fix it!