I grew up during the Depression. Dad was gone and we didn’t have money. We put cardboard in the holes in the souls of our shoes. I swept the floors of a grocery store and they gave me scraps of meat to take home to my family. If I didn’t work or there were no scraps, then we didn’t eat that night. There was a girl I liked but she had money and I didn’t. I couldn’t help that but I swore I would never be poor or go hungry again. I never did. After growing up during the Depression, I was glad to have three meals during the war.
I grew up in Tampa. My great-grandfather loved aviation and owned Drew Field. It is now Tampa International Airport. It was confiscated during the war when the Air Force took it over for training of B-17s. We were a pioneer family in Florida. We lived in Clearwater before Florida was a state. My great-grandfather brought slaves with him. He traded one slave for land from Fort Harrison to the bay. We traced our family back to the Mayflower. They also fought in the American Revolution. I had two grandfathers in the Confederate Army. One commanded an Indian Batallion that scalped union soldiers. Grant heard about it and stopped the scalpings.
I was riding around in Tampa with my mother when they announced the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I told mama I had to go. From that day on, I tried to get in the service. We listened to President Roosevelt’s speech declaring war on Japan and German on the radio in school. Roosevelt ended the speech with ‘we will see victory so help us, God.’ There aren’t many of us left who heard that speech. I joined the service on my 17th birthday. I was in the 12th grade in a Jesuit high school. 12 of us joined the service in one day and left the school empty. They had a parade for us. We cried as we watched it. The father, the monsignor, was a big man and he put his hand on my shoulder. He said, ‘John.’ I told him, ‘My name is Jack, father.’ He said, ‘John, you are a man today.’ I will never forget that.
I tried to go in when I was 16, but my mother wouldn’t sign the papers. A parent’s signature was required if you were under 18. I told her I would go into the Coast Guard because they stay on the coast and I would be safer there. She bought that and eight weeks later, I was gone and overseas. I wrote her a letter telling her what I did. Of the 275,000 who served in the Coast Guard during World War 2, only 13 of us are still living. We were running the Liberty boats and they were killing us. I was in the Atlantic the whole time.
My brother was five years older. He worked at Tampa Ship and was helping build a ship named the Exodus when he joined the Air Corps. One of his first missions was bombing Hitler’s oil and gas supply in Romania. Many planes went down that day and there were 127 holes in his airplane. They shot it up. He was later captured and spent a year in a German prison. He was fed maybe a rotten potato a day. They ate roaches, rats, worms, and snails. They mixed the critters they found with the potatoes for protein. Hitler ordered those prisoners burned in a concentration camp, but Patton came in with his tanks and saved them. My brother made 15 missions. The Exodus ship he helped build took him home.
I served in the Coast Guard from 1942 to 1946. Our ship was built in 1927 and went 12 knots. You can walk 12 knots. My gun was a .30 caliber Lewis gun used in World War 1. My ammunition was repacked in 1914. We landed in North Africa. The German beat us in the Battle of Kasserine. They killed a bunch of us.
We did our job of killing the Germans and the Germans did their jobs of killing us. They blew up a ship right in front of us. That was the biggest fire I have ever seen in my life. I was never wounded, but I was frozen. They wanted to amputate my arms, but I wouldn’t let them. We were sub chasers and did air-sea rescue. We had stretchers and a pharmacist and patrolled the Atlantic coast. We had a Nor’easter and almost rolled over. The wind was blowing snow and ice. We found a dock to tie into. I got on the bow. I was out there for 45 minutes. My hands froze and then my arms froze. I finally got the line on and we brought the ship in. They had to carry me in. I just wanted some whiskey but they took me to the emergency in Newport, Rhode Island. The doctor wanted to amputate, but I told him he wasn’t taking my hands off. My hands have hurt all of my life, but it is better than not having them.
They shot an echo from our ship at all times to find German U-boats. One day we were on top of one. We think we sunk it. They sent up trash, boxes, and blankets and sometimes dead bodies from the submarine to make it look like we sunk them. Those U-boats were sinking American ships before we entered the war. We were sending supplies to England and they were wiping us out with torpedoes. They sank 1700 of our ships.
I didn’t write many letters home until my commander called me in. He asked when was the last time I wrote to my mother. It was boot camp. Mama wrote someone in Washington asking where her little boy was because she hadn’t heard from him. The commander made me write her a letter and walked with me to mail it.
It was a terrible thing when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. We were unprepared and had to build a military from nothing. We had rubber tanks and rubber trucks to make them think we had a bigger military than we did. We built planes and bombers as fast we could, but we lost so many. When pilots got in those planes, they had a 71 percent chance of not coming home. They were shot down by the hundreds. When I went in we were losing, The Japanese were sinking everything. It was the greatest war in history and it killed more than 400,000 of us. Today, the war would be fought with nuclear weapons and kill many more.
I never worried about not coming home. I got up in the morning and did my job. I was later stationed as the military police in New York and loved that. On V-E Day I was on a train from Tampa to New York when they announced the war in Europe was over. They stopped the train in South Carolina so we run to a bar for a quick drink to celebrate. I was in Times Square on V-J Day and saw them taking the picture of the sailor kissing the girl.
I worked for 35 years with Avis. I lived in St. Thomas and had offices in St. Croix and Mexico City. My wife worked for an airline and we traveled the world. We took our children and gave them an education. We had a good life. We were married for 32 years before she died. My second wife smoked and died one day shy of our 20th anniversary. When I was 91, I slipped off the curb and fell. I heard bones break. Three cars drove by and looked at me, but never stopped. I passed out in the ambulance and woke up five days later. I was in the hospital for 14 months. I am getting around pretty well now.
The hardest day of my life was the day my mother died in my arms. She wasn’t feeling good. I went in her room and I held her we told stories and laughed about when I was a little boy. She laughed then put her head on my arm and died. She was 100 years old. Her death hit me harder than war or anything else I have been through.
(Hanging by the door in Mr. Jack’s house is a framed essay on Word War ll that I asked him to read before we left his house.)
“You see America’s World War ll generation saved the world. Not for glory or for honor. Not for lasting tributes on the printed page. Simply because it had to be done. No one else was available to do it.”
“Isn’t that something?” Mr Jack asks. “That’s what it was. We saved the world because we had to do it.”
(The essay ends with “We need to take a long, loving look at these people now, while we have the chance. If you know any, give them a hug and say, ‘thanks.’ No individual or group have ever matched their achievements. God willing, no one will ever again have to.)
Thank you veterans for the life and leadership you have given our country.