There are tears welling up in his eyes. “I was given the Navy Cross. But I’ve never worn it.”
Joe is more than 80 years old now, but he is still pained to think of what happened when he was just a teen. A frail, slightly bent man, Joe is the recipient of numerous professional association awards. A man who made his career in Civil Engineering, a man who tells me, to my surprise, that he was taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II.
We talk in the hallway of the hotel, near the ballroom. It is time for cocktails as the guests arrive for the banquet that is part of the annual spring conference. Idle chatting turns solemn.
“I’ve never talked about it. How can you,” he says. He describes his service in the Pacific, driving landing craft for five separate invasions. “How can you describe seeing a young man’s scalp torn off, a young man that may have been riding in the landing ship on an earlier trip, his brain washing in and out of his skull with the wash of the waves?”
Joe, I tell him, it’s good to talk about these things. You should be proud of your service.
“I don’t deserve that medal,” he says. “Not after all those boys who didn’t come back. What did I do?”
You did your duty, I say. And you should talk about what you went through to honor those that didn’t make it and to educate young people about the sacrifices of war. You did your part, and you should be proud for what you and all those other guys did.
He nods, but I am sure he is not convinced. We talk of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, how they are working to document the stories of his generation—before they’re all gone.
“Stephen Ambrose hounded me for years,” he confesses. “But I never wanted to talk about it.”
He finally admits that someone from the museum recently did get him to talk. She came by his office with a video camera and taped about three hours of his war memories. Joe says she was pretty.
I laugh. You dirty old man, I say, so that’s what it takes.
It was his fifth landing that was the worst, he says. They told him there would be little resistance. They told him there would only be a hundred or so Japanese on the island they attacked that day. There were 9,000.
The Japanese thought Joe knew something about the Navy’s special ordinance. Joe says he thinks that’s why they didn’t kill him. That’s certainly why they tortured him. Joe survived more than a year in their brutal hands.
“They used to wake us up before dawn by jabbing us with bamboo sticks,” Joe recalls. “Then one day, the sun was up, and nobody came to get us.” He hitched a ride with an Aussie soldier on a battered personnel carrier all the way to Singapore. After more than a week, he arrived and found a Navy Destroyer anchored in the bay. They told him the news. The Japanese had signed a treaty of unconditional surrender. It was September 1945.
Joe’s eyes glisten as he speaks, but he manages not to cry. So many years ago, and yet so clearly near to him.
“Hey, this is supposed to be a party!” he says suddenly.
Yes, let’s go get another drink, I tell him. You deserve it.