In years past, I have looked for some uplifting story around Veterans Day about a unique Vet who stood head and shoulders above his peers. With the current wars in SWA, there are many who qualify for this. What I lack is an intimate knowledge of their military history to write about. This year I opted for anybody’s Vet-one who wasn’t unique. I think my Uncle Jay qualifies.My father did 35 years and made a career out of it, but Jay epitomized the regular, blue collar enlisted man with all the accompanying warts.
Jay graduated early from school at 16 in 1932 and found himself jobless along with most of America at that time. A falling out with my step grandfather pushed him out of the house and on his own. He naturally signed up for the US Army with grandpa’s blessing and a permission slip when he reached 17. Jay rapidly rose through the ranks to Sergeant and was busted back down to Private just as quickly for drinking incidents in Hawaii in 36 and 38. He gradually made his way back up and was looking good in the neighborhood in the Philippines by 1940. He caught the silver BB (a through and through in his ankle) and was captured by the Japanese on the Bataan Peninsula in April of 1942. He did the 97 kilometre Bataan Fun Run to Camp O’ Donnell and became a prisoner of war for the next three years. He told me they had to drink each other’s urine in order to survive. His ankle healed poorly after the march for lack of any medical treatment. He escaped twice and was beaten so severely that the scars remained with him for life. His back looked like a Rand McNally road map. The Japanese knocked all his teeth out with rifle butts. Nowadays we have a hard time conceiving of that hard life. Read this to get an idea:
Jay and his fellow POWs were liberated in January of 1945. He weighed 87 lbs. and stood 6′ 2″. He was brought back to the States and recovered at Letterman Hospital in San Francisco for 18 months. He and his fellow prisoners were in such bad shape they couldn’t be shown to reporters. After several years of rehabilitation, the VA opted to amputate his right leg above the ankle due to the severe damage from the GSW. Jay set sail on his post-Army adventure in 1948 with his new prosthesis.
The VA had various names for PTSD back then. Battle fatigue and shell-shock were the most common. Jay was rightfully given 100% P&T and he proceeded to cut a swath across the Wild West. Our family is part Ute Indian from Colorado. The lineage is from my biological (half Ute) paternal grandfather- June Claire Warner. This would explain why Jay had such a problem ingesting alcohol. June didn’t fair any better. He and his 3 brothers were caught robbing a Union Pacific Train near Montrose, Colorado in 1919 and were given a Texas necktie party on the spot by the Pinkerton detectives that caught them.
Jay Claire traveled extensively with circuses and the like. He’d settle down for a while, get married, piss off the new bride and head out again. I can remember as a child hearing the phone ring in the middle of the night and my father talking to him and asking him to call at a reasonable hour. He was polite but firm with Jay. I know Dad loved him, but Jay’s lifestyle was utterly alien to him. We all know that there is someone just dying to hear from us at 2 AM after a night of hard partying. I’ve done it, too. It’s the Ute gene. My father was the only one who seemed to dodge this disease.
Jay sought me out several years after I came home from my adventures in Southeast Asia. I lived in Seattle and he had finally married a VA nurse and settled down in Cottage Grove, Oregon. He and Jackie came up and introduced themselves to my family in 1977 when my daughter was born. Jay had settled down quite a bit and given up drinking and burning down the world by then. That was one of the prenuptial clauses Jackie insisted on.
After finding Jay, we spent lots of time with him during holidays. They had a large old ranch house out in the country and we could poach deer any old time in the apple orchard out back. As both of us were creatures of war, we occasionally talked of this. He showed me his scars and told me of his POW travails. He told me of the day in 1944 when they chopped off two fingers and almost beat him to death when he was recaptured after an escape. He actually laughed about it and said he was made of tougher material than them. He never shared this with anyone-not even my dad or Jackie. Up to that point I had no idea anyone could treat their fellow man so harshly. It was a fact up in Laos during my time there that if we got shot down it was good night, Irene. Every one of the pilots that augured in while I was there were listed as KIA-BNR. I heard that one Air America pilot was repatriated after the war, but none of our AF pilots. The Pathet Lao had a No deposit- No return policy. Jay indicated life wasn’t much better for him as a POW. His body was testimony to that, but from his every day demeanor, you would never guess it.
I had the pleasure of Uncle Jay’s company until he passed from a combination of war ills in 1989. He lived long enough to see my son born. He must have come down with every disease you can think of and received no medicine to combat it during his POW tenure. He was a pragmatist about it all and the only ill effect from his service was the inability to be around anyone of Asian descent. I hardly blame him, but it was uncomfortable at times when he went into Bi-Mart in Cottage Grove and went Postal if he saw any.
Jay never had any children. Jackie took me aside and explained the day after the funeral. The Japanese had amputated more than just two fingers that day in 1944. Jay never divulged that to me and I can understand why. Losing one’s manhood, even in war, is a horrible thing to contemplate- let alone share with another.
Thus ends the tale of a run of the mill Vet. He didn’t wait for the draft. He took his punishments in stride and went up and down the enlisted ladder regularly like a pianist on his keyboard . He didn’t discuss his military past with anyone and he didn’t hang his medals on the wall. He didn’t belong to the VFW or AMLEG. He didn’t attend Veterans Day parades. In a word, he was the quintessential American. He came, he saw and he served. He didn’t ask for special consideration and shunned the limelight.
This is why America is great. It was built on the backs of unassuming men like Jay Claire Warner, SSGT. US Army 1932-1945 who didn’t think his life story was any more remarkable than yours or mine. His love for America knew no bounds. We receive recognition for our contribution to freedom one day a year. I expect that was one day too many for Uncle Jay.
Happy Veterans Day to all of you who value a concept (freedom) more than your own well being. You’re crazy. You know that, right?
P.S. As an aside, I would note that Warner was my father’s and Jay’s surname at birth. As was the habit in the 30’s, they were informally adopted by my step grandfather without any paperwork and assumed his name. Until the VA grants my claims, I will remain anonymous or Buckwheat, whichever you prefer. I answer to most anything, but don’t call me Late for Dinner.