Recently I received my Cousin Denise’s last job for my Uncle Jay. She shipped me all his memorabilia relating to his military service. I wish to share it with you and in the process, paint the picture of an uncommon patriot. Please don’t think for a minute that I am biased because he’s a blood relative.
My Uncle Jay was never on good terms with his Stepfather (whose name both he and I bear). When he reached 17 plus one day, old Alex took him down to the recruiter in Bakersfield and signed the paperwork. I think it was mutually agreed that they would never get along with one another and that Jay wanted to get out and see the world. And see it he did. This was 1934 and America was at peace. Jay was a real cut up and got into a lot of scrapes while in service. He frequently went up and down the pay scale over the next seven years and was intimately acquainted with Article 15s . As it appeared there was going to be trouble in the South Pacific, he and his cohorts were sent to the Philippines from Hawaii in anticipation of it in early 1940.
When the Japanese attacked, America was ill-prepared. Few of you-even seasoned WW2 Veterans-have heard of Stokes mortars. The 1903 Springfield was still the issue infantry rifle. Hand grenades were few and far between and mostly leftovers from WW1. Yet these were the implements America accorded it’s warriors in the opening days. Unfortunately, they were woefully inadequate and unavailing against the invading Japanese.
Jay and his unit (Company G, 2nd Battery, 31st Inf. Regiment) were decimated on the Bataan peninsula in the ensuing defense of Manila. Jay took a round through his ankle in the last days of the battle prior to the retreat to Corregidor. Gen. Wainwright’s surrender in April of 1942 set the stage for one of the most brutal and remembered atrocities of that war.
The Bataan death march began with between 60-80,000 American and Filipino troops from Balanga on April 9, 1942. Jay did this on his injured ankle with the help of fellow soldiers. Anyone who fell or could not continue was bayoneted and pushed to the side. I sat down once with Jay in the early eighties and discussed this as Veterans of all ages are wont to do. We discussed it once in its entirety and never talked of it again. The tears in his eyes when he described having to drink each other’s urine to survive was indescribable. The carnage of watching fellow troops murdered with no way to retaliate marked him for life. Jay must have been constructed of sound timber. Most (and a large percentage of the survivors did) suffered horrible mental symptoms akin to what we now call PTSD for life. Jay exhibited few signs outwardly but it dwelt within. He was a guest of the Imperial Government for 3 years and four months. That leaves lifelong, unhealed scars.
Jay was repatriated January 30th 1945. At six foot two inches, he normally weighed around two hundred. When he was examined by Army doctors that day, he clocked in at 87 lbs. He was also missing a finger- punishment for his second escape attempt -and his ears had numerous open cuts and festering wounds. He had lost most of his hair. He had tapeworms. He suffered beriberi, dysentery, malaria and pellagra. Each time he attempted to escape (3), the Japanese had hung him by his thumbs for days. He spent innumerable days in solitary confinement contorted by ropes that injured his lower back. They used their rifle butts to knock out most of his teeth. He ate things you or I would be loath to consider “food”. Jay, to me, was a testimonial to how strong the human spirit is and how brightly the candle of life burns in some. To be sure, most would have succumbed far earlier on the 63-mile forced march with lesser injuries.
He was promptly evacuated by ship to Letterman General Hospital and stayed there for over a year while the VA attempted to patch him up. He didn’t even know his name at that point. He was often found hunting bugs in the hallways and eating them. Eventually, after a year or more, he regained his senses and was released. They were never able to repair his leg and ankle as the bullet traversed through the joint. The pain was virtually unbearable and Jay reluctantly opted for amputation in 1968. Jay also suffered acutely from PTSD before the military even had a name for it. I can vividly remember being in Bi-Mart shopping together when he spotted an oriental fellow. It was all he could do not to assault him. He suffered this affliction until his passing. Other than sleeping with a gun and drinking too much, he was remarkably like you and me. Hell, I still sleep with mine. Doesn’t everyone?
Jay and my father were opposites. My father joined the Regular Air Force early on in 1940 and received his commission in 1941. Jay. By contrast, had made it up to Staff Sergeant by 1938 and was back down at Private First Class by the time of his surrender at Corregidor. He had an affliction for adult beverages and could become belligerent when drinking. Jay told me he had attained the rank of Corporal more times from both directions than he could count. All those records were lost in the fall of Manila but would have made for some interesting reading. Fortunately for him, the incarceration allowed him to regain his former rank of Staff Sergeant if that’s any consolation. Jay wasn’t the least morose about it. He remembered it all fondly as being one big youthful adventure than unfortunately culminated in a three year jail sentence with poor food and lifetime repercussions. Even afterwards, I can say he was a happy man and did not have an ax to grind over his internment. Fortunately, he didn’t remember too much of it either. That was probably a Godsend. His beef afterwards was strictly with anyone of oriental descent.
When I was young, it was not uncommon to receive a collect call from Jay in some out of the way town in the west in the middle of the night. He was fond of working for circuses and traveled quite a bit. He would beg Dad to wire some money Western Union to bail him out of jail. My father, God bless him, always complied. Dad understood the travails of the POW experience but he could not fathom Jay’s continued plunge into the dark side with alcohol. We know a lot more about how the mind works now, and in retrospect, his actions were rather mild and predictable compared to the current PTSD problems Vets are returning with from Iraqistan. Fortunately, Jay’s love of life and booze at that point far outweighed any desire to suck on a lead lollipop.
Jay met his third and last wife Jacqueline and they married in Bakersfield in November, 1971. He’d met his match. She was made of sterner stuff and finally got Jay back into the land of the living. It required a lot of bellowing and screaming but he eventually realized Jackie meant well. He never absorbed her love of religion but he respected it.
Our paths crossed in 1977. Jay found out from my father that I lived in Seattle. He had since moved from Bakersfield to Cottage Grove, Oregon and was only six hours away. He and Jackie came up to visit us and our new daughter that summer for a day and I learned more about him in 3 hours than in 25 years. Jay was a hoot. He liked to poach deer out of season (like me). Society’s rules were for mortal men-not us Veterans. He was, and always will be, a hero of immense proportions to me. It might be said that he gives me the immense inspiration to do what I do for other Vets these days. Everyone in my immediate family are educated and down to earth. Jay and I were the opposite-black sheep- and I finally understood where my “wild and crazy” gene came from. I, too, was no stranger to Article 15s.
In 1983, Jay opted to set his military records straight and seek out the medals that he had never been awarded. Like him, I am currently doing so to, too. It is something on the bucket list that needs doing. We don’t do it for ourselves but our descendants. Someone will eventually come along doing Ancestry.com and ask. He found out he had been awarded the Bronze Star twice- once by virtue of his also unknown Combat Infantryman’s Badge and the second oak leaf cluster for his defense of the Bataan Peninsula in combat until the fall of Manila. To my way of thinking, they should strike an award for POWs. The rest of the medals were the normal “I was there” ones except for the Purple Heart.
Does it strike anyone as strange that Defense Secretary Panetta is advocating for the Distinguished Warfare Medal- one rated higher than a Bronze Star- when America only saw fit to award Jay with several Bronze Stars? Where is the justice or common sense in that? It risks demeaning the medal as well as the man who wears it. How can you feel any respect for a soldier who sits in an air conditioned room drinking Mountain Dew, munching Dorritos and playing with an X-box controller. Granted, he’s doing a great thing but there is no danger of death or harm.
From reading through his military and VA correspondence, I see he was awarded P&T ten years after his foot was amputated in 1968.
To put it in perspective, Jay never asked for a dime before 1962 for his injuries in WW2. He survived his POW status and the intervening 17 years without so much as a whimper. There’s a reason why. VA never told him to go out and file when they released him from Letterman Hospital. It was painfully obvious he was entitled but VA didn’t lift a finger to help. So much for the informal claims process. It took an inebriated fellow soldier in a VFW bar in Oklahoma to alert him to his status as a Veteran and his entitlement. To add insult to injury, he got the usual lowball of 30% and Special Monthly Compensation (K) for the foot. He didn’t even appeal for a higher rating. Jay told me he still didn’t pursue it further until the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Inc. interceded on his behalf following the amputation. That was just the unassuming kind of gentleman he was. He didn’t want to bother anyone with his problems. Imagine that. Neither did I when I came home from Vietnam. We were pariahs and baby killers.
Much like soldiers before and after, he never sought fame and fortune for his service. Jay summed it up once when he told me he “wasn’t a parade kind of guy”. For some reason, this seems to be the case more often than not of most combat WW1 and WW2 Veterans. It can even be said for Korea and my war. Many of us just wanted to blend into the populace and leave Vietnam far behind because it was so unpopular. The stigma attached was so overwhelming that many refuse even to this day to discuss it. I never revisited it until 2006 when the enormity of the hepatitis death sentence loomed. Trying to remember the minutiae of details surrounding an injury usually brings back pleasant as well as decidedly unpleasant memories.
Jay passed January 21st, 1990 at the VAMC in Portland. He was 74 years old and carried himself like a teenager still. If you have occasion to be traveling on I-5, he’s buried at Comstock Cemetery in Curtin, Oregon close to his home of so many years. It’s about 600 yards off the east side of the freeway with an easy on-off.
In closing, I will say that we, as Veterans, are far more knowledgeable about our rights and VA’s obligations towards us now. Nevertheless, I could never see Jay filing for hemorrhoids or hammer toe. Had he desired, I’m sure he could have filed for any number of the diseases associated with POW status and had a rip snorting 300% rating with SMC L. He didn’t. He didn’t file for sleep apnea associated with having his nose broken 10 times by the Japanese. He didn’t file for loss of use of his thumbs due to being hung by them for days at a time. In short, Jay is remarkable for what he didn’t file for and what he didn’t seek even though he was clearly entitled to it. I mention this for the edification of a new class of warriors who are only now entering the arena. Clearly, you are entitled to many of the ailments you will be filing for. Many have been irreparably harmed-both mentally as well as physically- by repeated combat deployments. Weigh the ones you are going to suffer from for life and concentrate on them to the exclusion of all others. Focus on the DM2 and the back injuries that will impair you for life. Concentrate on the Hepatitis and PTSD and make light of the MDD with narcissistic tendencies.
Lastly, Jay (and I) would admonish you to live life in the now with those you hold dear and put aside the things in the past that cause so much anguish. Fight your battles early with the VA. You must be well aware by now that it is going to be a protracted encounter. Dead Veterans have much to teach live ones. Without a doubt, all of our lives in my family have been touched by Uncle Jay. For those of us who served, even more so. Included in the papers I received is the death certificate of my namesake and Step Grandfather I never met. He passed at the LA soldiers home in December of 1946, shortly after Jay returned from his Camp O’Donnell incarceration. He, too, was a Veteran-of the First World War. It runs in our family apparently. I had no idea.