My mother begins to tell her story but stops. She runs her hand across the medals on the table in front of her. They are in a frame that has been displayed in our house for as long as I can remember. The pristine Purple Heart is as bright and illuminated today as it was 70 years ago. She takes a deep breath. After a moment she releases it and begins:
“It was just so long ago; it seems like another life. I remember it at times, though, like it was just yesterday.”
As she speaks, it is almost like she is retelling a movie she saw last week or the latest episode of her favorite TV show, cutting in and out of one story to tell another as something else pops into her head, eventually getting back to the original story she began with. Her uncle’s name was John. He went by Jackie and he walked the earth long before I ever entered it. His story is almost larger than life but, then again, so many from that time are, seemingly trapped in the minds of those who don’t think anyone is interested in hearing them.
He had dropped out of high school and lied about his age so he could serve in the Army just as World War II was dwindling to a long and bloody close. He came home and enlisted in the Marine Corps and was off to Korea just a few short years later.
It wasn’t quite that simple though. He was so short that he didn’t meet the minimum height requirement to be able to serve in the Marines. Of all the things that can be said about the male side of our family line, that its members lack ingenuity is not one of them. John came up with a plan to have his brothers stretch him out before he went for his physical. His brother-in-law, my mother’s father, thinking that attempting to “stretch out” a human being was a terrible idea, decided instead to stuff his socks with rolled up handkerchiefs. It worked and gave him the height he needed. His Army discharge lists him at five feet and one and a half inches. His Marine discharge? Five feet and two and one-quarter inches.
This is just the beginning, though, and he is no longer here to tell his own story. He came home from this forgotten war, plagued with things he could not forget. At a time when no one knew the struggles our service men were going through, all the evidence makes clear that he was suffering from what we now know as PTSD. John’s story has no happy ending. He had fought with everything he was capable of to come home alive, only to battle the demons of memory, as if he had never left.
My mom continues, “My first memory of him as a child was outside in front of our house. It had just finished raining and the sun had just started shining again. Playing on the sidewalk, a shadow came over me and I looked up. Standing there was a man in his Marine uniform. It was a sight to behold, one I would never forget. The sun was reflecting off all his buttons and medals, each one blinding me as the brightness bounced back into my eyes. He smiled at me and asked if I was Ruth Ann, and if my grandmother was home. I was truly in awe, he was the most beautiful person I had ever seen. I have no idea the year, or even how old I was, I just remember the sight of him and how beautiful he looked.
“Not long after that I remember my grandmother got a telegram, there was a knock on the door, and as she read it, she fell on the floor screaming. The beautiful man I had seen that day was Missing in Action in Korea. I heard later that his brother, my Uncle Joe, got a white streak through his hair overnight after hearing the news. It is somewhat funny, I remember when my grandmother got the telegram so well, but don’t remember hearing about him being found, I guess sometimes the bad news sticks with you more than the good.
When he came home, he was in Quantico, Virginia recovering, but they didn’t remove his shrapnel until he came home to the VA hospital in Indianapolis. I remember getting all dressed up and riding the bus with my grandmother to go see him at the hospital. His arm was in a sling when we saw him. We met him in a big room with rows and rows of other men all around. Each and every one of them were either in wheelchairs, covered in bandages or in slings and casts. The room was very bright, I remember, and there was a local radio guy there with a microphone talking to all of the guys. My uncle told me I had to go talk on the radio. Knock, Knock jokes were very popular in the ‘50s and he told me one to say. It was the first joke I can ever remember learning:
It’s thunder the bed, if you want it.
“I had no idea what it meant at the time but all the guys in the room just laughed and laughed. The radio guy smiled too and walked away. If I had to guess, I was only about six at the time and I’ve remembered that stupid joke my entire life. Possibly because it was my first joke or possibly because my Uncle Jackie was the one who told it to me. I found out later that it was a reference to the hospital bedpans, information that only made me wonder even more why it was funny.
“When he came home from the hospital, he lived with us. We lived in a small house but my dad, who was always handy, remodeled the attic to make a bedroom for him. I remember it was small, with a bed and a closet, where his uniform hung. I could never understand how he could sleep up there, it was so incredibly hot, and I could hardly stand to spend any time in the room. We had no air conditioning and there were no windows in the attic. Uncle Jackie said he liked the heat; the hotter the better. I found out later that a number of Korean War veterans had frostbite from the war where temperatures had reached -40°F and soldiers were ill prepared. I don’t know for sure if my Uncle got it or not, though. When my dad offered to get him a fan, he refused and said, ‘You don’t know how cold hell is.’
“His arm was still in a sling when he came to live with us and his chest and arm were full of shrapnel, before it was removed at the VA. He spent lots of time with me while he lived with us. He taught me how to roller skate — I had the metal kind you hooked onto your shoes with a key. He played Cowboys and Indians with me; I had a gun and a holster with cowgirl boots and an outfit. I remember though that he always had to win, no matter what. I had some plastic toy army soldiers that we would set up on the table and have battles. That’s how I learned about bazookas and flame throwers. I would always just line my soldiers up in rows with no particular organization to them. He told me never let anyone stand behind the soldiers with the bazookas, they would get killed. He told me all the soldiers with flame throwers needed to go first into battle because they cleared the way. That was my introduction to war. Sometimes when we would play and start setting up the soldiers he would get this far away, lost look on his face that I didn’t understand at the time.
“He would take naps on our couch and start screaming. Whenever it would happen, my grandmother, who babysat me, would send me outside until he woke up. It would happen all the time at night when he was sleeping and my dad would run up the stairs. My mother would tell me he was just having a bad dream, and I should just go back to bed, but I never could, the screams and crying were so loud.
“One night my dad’s sister and her husband were at the house playing cards. Jackie laid down on the couch and fell asleep. I was watching TV with my cousins when he shot straight up and started screaming. I thought he was awake and just trying to scare us because his eyes were open but they didn’t look normal. My dad and uncle ran in and told us to leave. As I left, I saw them holding him down and Jackie was fighting with them. My mother was crying and my aunt was holding her. I thought my dad and uncle were hurting Jackie and I couldn’t understand why.
“When he came home, he used the money he received from the Marines to buy a car. He drove it from New York where he visited his brother, my Uncle Joe, who worked as a buyer for Macy’s. My Uncle Joe sent back a bunch of curtains and drapes with Jackie for my mom and her sister. Jackie had bought a convertible but he didn’t know how to put the top up. So he used the drapes to wrap up in at night when he was cold. My dad had to show him how to put the top up when he got home.
“Not long after he got home from the hospital, he went out drinking with some friends. He came running into the house, telling everyone that if anyone asked, he’d been here all night and was upstairs asleep. Not a minute later the police knocked on the door. My dad answered, and the officer asked if my uncle was home. My dad let them in. As they were standing there talking, my Uncle came down the stairs. If I hadn’t just seen him run in with my own eyes, I would swear he’d just rolled out of bed. His hair was messed up, he was wearing his VA bathrobe, and his arm was in a sling. My dad’s mouth almost hit the floor. I can still remember that look. The police asked if my uncle had a car, and he said yes, it was parked out front, he had just got home from the VA hospital, and it had been parked there since his surgery. They told him his car was found wrecked a few blocks away. They assumed that it had been stolen and wrecked. He got a brand new car from the insurance company. He never was a very good driver, and he didn’t really enjoy driving either.
“We went to a cook-out at my Aunt’s and Uncle’s house. I had not seen Uncle Jackie for awhile. He had re-enlisted in the Marines and was going to be leaving again soon. Uncle Jackie was supposed to be bringing his new wife. I had heard she was young, only 16 or 17. When he got there, she was driving his car, and for some reason I just didn’t like her. She acted funny, immature, and I just remember thinking she had no business being married to anyone, let alone my uncle. At the cookout, I was playing with my cousins in the driveway throwing rocks. I threw one and it hit my Uncle Jackie. He picked up a railroad tie from the ground and had it over his head ready to throw it at me. I just stood there in shock looking at this man I had never seen before. My dad and uncle stopped him before he could throw it, but it was like he was in a trance and, just like that, he came out of it. He apologized and apologized over and over again, he was so sorry and upset with himself. That cookout was the last time I saw my Uncle Jackie.”
On September 21, 1954, John William Cron was killed in a car accident in Bean Blossom, Indiana at the age of 25 years old. He was a Corporal in the Marines from 1948 through his honorable discharge in 1951. He served in Korea, and was in the assault and seizure of Inchon, September 15-16, 1950, the capture and securing of Seoul, September 17, 1950, and participated in the Wonsan-Hungman-Chosin campaign October 26 through December 13, 1950. It was during this campaign that he went Missing in Action and was presumed dead with many others that had frozen to death. Among the numerous honors he received were a Purple Heart with one gold star and a Presidential Unit Citation with one star. He had been missing in action, been through hell, survived, and came home only to die in a car accident. His wife, who had been driving the car at the time, took the insurance money she received and never made contact with the family again.