I know and have known lots of veterans. Whether a veteran saw combat or not makes him no less a hero in my mind. If you put on the uniform, you had your posterior on the line for my freedom. On this Fourth of July I’m remembering one of these veterans in particular.
I worked with Jesse for a couple of years when I was in the hardware/building materials business. Jesse was a retired textile engineer who worked in our store just to have something to do. He grew up in North Carolina and went to North Carolina State University. He was the only employee in our hardware store above the age of 30. The rest of us were all single kids who drug into work most mornings in various states of recoveries from our night before. We were truly just working for beer money and didn’t much care about anything important. At first Jesse was just the “old guy.” But then we came to a know a treasure of a man that made all of us laugh with some of the most outlandish stories you’d ever heard. I have no idea what percentage of the stories he told us were true. I could tell he loved watching our minds work while he was telling his stories, knowing we were trying to separate fact from fiction. Most of his stories illustrated quite well that, at one time in his life, he was like us — a young idiot full of mischief looking for the next good time. That court jester demeanor left, though, when he would tell us about his war experiences. The smile would leave his face because it was important to him that young folks knew just how high a price had been paid for the freedom to live our lives of fun and debauchery. Not just by him but by thousands like him.
He was a Marine who fought in the Pacific in the second World War. Somewhere in the midst of his deployment he was captured by the Japanese and spent several years in a POW camp. He was the ranking officer. As an officer it was his duty to escape as often as possible. The logic being that the more soldiers the Japanese had out looking for him the fewer they had in the field fighting. I asked him one time how he would escape from a heavily fortified camp. It was the only time I saw him struggle for words. “Uh,,,,well…….you’d watch the guards for a week or two, figure out which one was probably the weakest and then pick the right time to disengage him…” I asked him what “disengage” meant exactly. He said “well, what do you think it means?” I could tell he didn’t want to provide details. He would later tell me that the lingering hurt from the war (other than the physical scars he brought home) was knowing he’d had to “disengage” some guys who were just like him — a long way from home and fearing for their life.
On the occasion of his last escape he was captured quite quickly. Apparently it was, at that time, hard for a 6’2″ Caucasian to go unnoticed in the Philippines. He was captured and taken back to prison camp. The colonel that ran the camp was furious at Jesse’s continued defiance and decided to make an example. See, he had on previous occasions taken a hammer and flattened Jesse’s thumbs to try and make him fearful of escaping again…it hadn’t worked. So this time he stood Jesse up in front of the other prisoners (who were Jesse’s subordinates) and told him that he was going to show them how much respect Jesse had for the Japanese colonel. He ordered Jesse to take two steps back and salute the colonel. Jesse took two steps back. But he didn’t salute. He gave the colonel the finger. There was, obviously, much rage. The colonel took a rifle and raised the butt and smashed in the left side of Jesse’s face. Literally crushed his face. They then threw Jesse in one of those “hot boxes” you’ve seen in World War II movies. They left him there to die.
Jesse always said the time he spent in that hot box was the hardest part of the war. Not because it was hot. Not because he was always awakened at night by maggots and cockroaches feeding on his crushed and infected face. Not because he was starving to death and dehydrated beyond belief. But because he knew he was going to lie there and die in the middle of that jungle and his mother and his sister would never know what happened to him. Realizing their hurt was more than he could bear. He eventually found himself begging God to just let him die.
Obviously, he didn’t die. It was fortunate for him that his camp was liberated in the midst of his torture. He was free and went stateside to be treated for his massive face wounds. They were unable to save his eye and he lived the rest of his life with a glass eye in that socket. And he knew that “eye stuff” freaked me out. So he’d leave his glass eye on the counter where I’d find it. He’d put it in my coffee cup. He’d say “hear hold this” and, without looking, I’d hold out my hand and he’d place his eye in it. Typical Jesse that the one thing that was the evidence of the hell he’d lived in became such a source of humor for him (at my expense.) I told him once he was a hero. He shook his head. “Nope” he said, “The heroes didn’t come home….”