There aren’t many who can talk about World War II in the first person.
Ninety-two year old Jack Ross, recent visitor to Kodiak, is in that remnant.
Enlisting in the Navy in 1942, Jack was stationed on the USS Honolulu, which served in Kodiak, the Aleutians and Solomon Islands.
Jack lives in Fairbanks with Ed Randolph and his wife, Tammy. He and Ed recently visited Ed’s son, Tyler, and his family in Kodiak.
The last time Jack was here was in 1964 after the earthquake and tidal wave. He helped put the high school back together, said Ed.
Jack first saw Kodiak while the Honolulu was in port during the war.
He recalls “four or five little green houses on the way into town not far from the Mecca Bar. The first place I probably was ever in Kodiak was the Mecca Bar. Servicemen were very tough on Kodiak. They wouldn’t let us in town.”
But Jack said he “wasn’t that kind of guy. I didn’t raise a lot of heck.”
The Honolulu proceeded to Kiska, intending to bombard the island, which had been occupied by the Japanese.
“Fog” immediately comes to mind when Jack is asked about that part of Alaska.
“At that time, many of these waters weren’t really charted all that well. You had to be very, very cautious sneaking in. So we were very cautious and we gave up, probably half a dozen times, and came back in.
“When we finally did get in to where we could bombard, we unloaded the ship. It takes a very short time to fire all the ammunition on a cruiser. In about an hour you can empty it.
“Later we found out nobody was there. The Japanese had left. We bombarded an empty island.”
Jack said he never saw a Japanese person until he was in the Solomon Islands.
“We had little enclosures where we kept prisoners. If you walked up to it, the Japanese walked as far away from you as they could. They knew you were the most horrible, evil person in the world. The Japanese believed in their cause, too.
“I couldn’t help but feel a little bit sorry for the poor guys behind that fence. I couldn’t help but feel happy that I wasn’t” in their shoes, he said.
Perhaps Jack’s biggest scare during the war occurred while the Honolulu was in the vicinity of the Solomon Islands.
The ship “lost 100 feet of its bow one night,” Jack said. “Twenty-five frames got blowed off” by an enemy torpedo.
“I was in Turret Two. I never heard a sound. Just a big bump in the butt is what I felt. We didn’t know until daylight what the damage was.”
The ship was repaired, but taken out of the Pacific conflict.
Before Jack went into the Navy, he experienced Army life by staying with his brother, Lee Mitchell, who took care of Jack since neither of his estranged parents wanted him to live with them.
Lee was on an Army barge that headed on a mission to Alaska in 1937 to survey for emergency runways in preparation for imminent conflict.
The vessel, with a crew of 20, spent the winter at a cannery in Egegik in Bristol Bay.
“When the ice was out, we headed up to the Yukon” to the village of Ruby.
The military had no problem with a 12-year-old boy tagging along as long as he cleaned up camp.
“I even had an Army shirt with my brother’s insignia on it. I was treated very well, (even though) a little rough some time.
“I was left alone to do as I pleased. No playmates where I was at.
“My brother had two women that took care of me” – Athabascans who operated a fish wheel. “I think they were his girlfriends. They were awful kind and nice to me.”
When he was put in charge of cleaning 200 chum salmon, they came to his aide. “I had never split a fish.”
Jack and his brother had dogs and a riverboat about two feet wide and 30 feet long powered by a seven-and-a-half horse motor.
Lee was a top sergeant. “He ran the outfit. The top sergeant in those days was somebody.”
During the war, Lee took a demotion in order to join the paratroopers. He died in the Allied invasion of Sicily.
In 1939, because war was imminent, all civilians had to be moved. Jack was shipped to California to live with his parents, who had gotten back together.
He was enrolled in high school at Huntington Beach. “I hadn’t been in school for about five years,” he said. “It was a very unhappy experience. I didn’t like it at all.
“Fortunately the War came along and I got the heck out of that school.”
Jack contends that the war “rescued many people. It was a different time. Everybody wanted to be in the service. It was a patriotic thing.”
After the war, Jack married his sweetheart, Ethel, and they lived on property bordering land owned by Ed’s parents near Fairbanks.
The relationship the Rosses enjoyed with the Randolphs had a potentially contentious beginning.
“My dad cut a dog sled trail across our property and across the corner of (Jack’s) property, without asking permission, because you didn’t ask permission in those days,” Ed said.
In the winter when Ed was 8 or 9, he took a ride on his dog sled, cutting through Jack’s property.
“The dogs started fighting and got all tangled up,” Ed recalled.
After Jack helped Ed get the dogs straightened out, he asked the boy to tell his father, Dick, that he wanted to talk with him.
“Dad went down to speak with Jack; before it’s over with, they’re sharing a bottle of wine,” said Ed.
Ross has been friends with four generations of the Randolph family, starting with Ed’s grandfather. Now that he’s made the Kodiak trip, he’s gotten to know Tyler and Carrie Randolph’s children, too.
“These people are my friends,” Jack said. “You just don’t seem to find that sort of thing in other parts of the country.”