“Honor to the soldier and sailor everywhere, who bravely bears his country’s cause. Honor, also, the citizen who cares for his brother in the field and serves, as he best can, the same cause.” - Abraham Lincoln
Even as a journalist and war veteran, finding the right words for a story on a neglected warrior taken from us in the prime of his life escaped my creativity. Quite frankly, I found disappointment and disbelief clouding my inspiration when confronted with the callous judgement, be it rules and regulations, or an unfathomable cold-heartedness toward a fallen Marine. That people die in war is a given, but the character of a nation is measured by how it reacts after a veteran is called home for his Final Inspection. Notwithstanding, to correct this particular wrong took men and women on every conceivable make of motorcycle biking over 2,000 miles from California to Georgia.
The Marine, SSgt Jonathan Turner, passed away at the age of 41 due to combat related issues. He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1998 and served his country honorable and faithfully for over 17 years, including seven deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Assigned to the 11th Marines out of Camp Pendleton, SSgt Turner was medically discharged after developing complications from indefatigable exposure to combat. SSgt Turner would fight his war demons alone.
With his family in Georgia, SSgt Turner’s Marine Band of Brothers and Sisters made all the funeral arrangements. The Marines said of Turner, "He was a great leader and inspiration to his fellow Marines in both the Corps and daily life. It didn’t matter if he knew you for five minutes or five years, you were his friend, and he’d give you the shirt off his back. He loved riding motorcycles."
His mother could not afford a trip to California to claim her son’s ashes, so the shocking decision was made to "ship her son home in a box to be delivered to her home via Federal Express." Memories of the treatment our returning Vietnam veterans received flashed through my mind.
A California chapter of the Patriot Guard Riders had been scheduled to attend SSgt. Turner’s funeral, but when they found out no member of his family would be there plus learned of the method of transportation to be used to send his remains home, the PGRs took matters into their own hands. A Pony Express run was set up, a procession of motorized horses to properly transfer SSgt Turner home to his mother.
Consider the planning and coordination behind this Pony Express run, from California through Arizona, then New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and into Georgia. Rain or shine, the men and women of the PGRs would not be deterred. Their mission began on Aug. 6, 2015 and ended with the dignified transfer of SSgt Turner’s remains to his mother on Aug. 9; three days in transit, three fabulous days of hard riding to honor a fallen brother.
Staging took place in Ontario followed by a five-hour run, including fueling stops, to Lake Havasu City, Arizona. American Legion riders joined the journey as did other bikers. The tough ride through California and Arizona can best be appreciated by a posted "IMPORTANT NOTE": “The weather is predicted to be very hot. Please stay hydrated and do not forget to eat, it can make the difference with your ability to withstand the heat. Please police yourself with regard to the heat, if your health does not do well with heat, please do not attempt this ride.”
Thus began the dignified hand offs, from Arizona across the country to the Peach State where SSgt Turner was returned to his mother’s home in College Park. The timing was perfect, the hand offs on schedule, and although the Pony Express ride was mentioned a few times by local news stations it did not marshal the national recognition worthy of such a remarkable feat.
A Veteran’s Story has featured the Patriot Guard and American Legion Riders in a couple of articles, yet I’m constantly amazed by what these dedicated riders do for their brothers and sisters, for veterans confined to hospitals and nursing homes, for their country, for charities, and for each other. The mention of names or recognition is not a high priority with the Riders, they just continue to do what must be done, and what the right thing is to do. I know of one mother in College Park, who will forever remember the motorized horses of the Pony Express. God keep these Riders safe on their noble, and often hazardous, missions of mercy.
On a different note, I received an email today on the loss of yet another member of the Greatest Generation. A rare breed of warrior, he served aboard a boat named after a small sciaenoid food fish from the Atlantic coast called a Spot. During WWII, the Navy christened their submarines with fish names, as in the USS Spot, a Balao-class sub.
Charles Crews, a former projectionist at the fabulous Fox Theater, first served aboard the USS Nevada, a battleship, but preferred a closer knit unit so volunteered for submarine duty. He joined the USS Spot on its launch day, Aug. 3, 1944. While in California he visited a Hollywood canteen. He happily recalled, “I danced with Betty Grable, met Clark Gable and Bob Hope, plus heard the aging vocalist Sophie Tucker tell a group of soldiers, ‘There’s snow on the roof but there’s still a fire in the furnace.’”
In December of 1944 the USS Spot arrived at Pearl Harbor, much to the surprise of the US Navy. It seems that the Navy had listed the Spot as sunk. “That sure was news to us,” Crews said, grinning. Then came the combat.
Crews operated the starboard side maneuvering board while on patrol. Near Wake Island, the Spot sank a couple of merchant ships. “We had no feelings of guilt,” Crews said. “But we didn’t celebrate either. It was like a job, we just did what we had to do.” The Spot was depth-charged 4 times, twice by her own country.
Crews said, “Well, an American plane bombed us once by mistake. And an American destroyer, the USS Case, thought we were a Japanese sub and fired a salvo at us that barely missed our conning tower. We fired a recognition flare then submerged as a precaution. It’s a good thing we did submerge because the Case depth-charged us anyway. At a recent reunion they apologized for the incident, but quite frankly I wasn’t a bit interested in hearing it!”
“When you shoot at a destroyer and miss, it is like hitting a wildcat in the ass with a banjo.” - Chief Officer aboard a WW II submarine - The Spot fought running deck gun battles with Japanese surface ships, surfaced into a Japanese mine field and barely escaped destruction by skillful maneuvering, submerged into mud banks while escaping depth-charges, and took casualties among her deck crew in one surface battle. By war’s end, the USS Spot had sunk at least 16 enemy ships, damaged several more, and demolished a radar installation with its deck gun.
When Japan surrendered, the USS Spot was in port at Pearl Harbor for resupply. “I was sunbathing on Waikiki Beach when Japan threw in the towel,” Crews said. “That’s a great way to end a war, don’t you think?” Charles Crews reported for his Final Inspection on Sept. 20, 2015.
The United States lost 52 submarines during WWII, the highest casualty percentage of any group. A total of 375 officers and 3131 enlisted men went down with their boats, an average of one out of five submariners.
On a personal note: The Greatest Generation is departing at a rate of one every 90 seconds. With them goes their stories. Frustration is only one emotion I endure when another veteran, another piece of our history, another untold story, is forever lost. I am but a small part of a story-telling endeavor to keep their memories alive. Yet in reality it is up to the veteran, his family, and his friends, to candidly talk, to listen, and to learn the truth before truth is replaced by historians publishing guesswork.
Too, when taking into consideration the necessity of a motorized Pony Express to transport home a fallen hero, I find it very troubling when a bureaucracy’s lack of decency triggers action from men and women of character who understand words like honor, duty, and country to step up to the plate to do the respectable thing. If not for them, then who? Plus consider the fact that veterans make up one-third of the homeless population. On any given night approximately 50,000 former military personnel are roaming the streets or sleeping in cardboard boxes. The VA remains a self-serving monolith, our military is stretched perilously thin, high-ranking officers are being retired or fired for telling the truth or advocating the successful tactics and strategies they mastered in our military academies, yet the Federal Government is scheming to spend millions in taxpayer money to relocate approximately 100,000 Middle East refugees into our heartland. I just don’t get it.
“If you put the Federal Government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in 5 years there would be a shortage of sand.” - Milton Friedman