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June 14, 2014

MAX JONES: Fathers, sons and the tides of war

TERRE HAUTE — The wonderful and poignant stories and tributes the past week about D-Day have been both heartbreaking and uplifting.

Such are the tales of war. What happened on the beaches of Normandy and in Northern France during that invasion will forever remain difficult to fathom for those of us who can only read, hear and marvel at these remarkable feats of human courage.

But we should not lose sight of the fact that the summer of 1944 was an intense period of combat in both theaters of World War II. And as we observe and celebrate Father’s Day 2014, it’s an appropriate time to remember the life and times of all those living 70 years ago — the fathers whose sons were fighting the battles; the men who would never become fathers, themselves, because they would not survive the war; and the men who did survive to return home, live long and productive lives and help spawn a new generation.

In fact, June 15 was an especially significant date in the summer of ’44. It was the day the U.S. Armed Forces, led by the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions, invaded the island of Saipan in the Mariana Islands. The men on those ships who attacked and ultimately captured Saipan actually boarded their vessels and left port before D-Day began.

Among the Marines on those ships cruising toward Saipan was my dad, Cpl. Joseph L. Jones of the 4th Marines, 14th regiment.

It was his first real combat of the war. It’s difficult to imagine anyone, even trained soldiers, being prepared for what they would encounter that day and in the days to come.

Saipan was an important strategic outpost, a heavily fortified and mountainous island with an airfield that had been used extensively by the Japanese to launch attacks against American military positions. Taking control of that airfield would mean that U.S. bombers would be in range of Japanese installations throughout the South Pacific, including the mainland of Japan.

As was the case during much of WWII’s military operations, Japanese resistance was underestimated. Rather than overrunning Saipan in just a few days, it took more than three weeks.

As most WWII veterans, my dad talked sparingly about his experiences. He answered questions and engaged in general conversation about his time in the service, but rarely initiated the discussion. I do remember him saying on more than one occasion that his combat experiences on Saipan were the worst he encountered, which is revealing for a soldier whose division also stormed the beaches at Tinian and Iwo Jima.

The day following the invasion proved particularly harrowing. The Marines established a beachhead on Saipan by the end of June 15, then had to beat back nighttime Japanese counterattacks. On June 16, my dad’s unit began advancing into the island’s interior. While he never talked much about the details, historical accounts indicate it was a brutal day. At one point, he and others on his team were injured by enemy fire, but pressed on.

The 4th Marines and their counterparts prevailed in the battle, which ended on July 9. It was a costly campaign, with 3,426 Americans killed and 10,364 wounded. It was even worse for the Japanese; 24,000 killed, 5,000 by suicide, and 22,000 civilians killed, mostly by suicide.

In the wake of the battle, my dad was awarded the Bronze Star medal for what the Marine Corps called “heroic achievement” in the conquest of Saipan. A citation accompanied his medal, which read, in part:

“Corporal Jones and other members of his survey team proceeded to survey in the battalion position, although it was necessary for them continually to expose themselves to heavy enemy fire in order to accomplish their task. … Later on the same day, the team went forward under very heavy fire to establish an observation post. While attempting this mission, the entire team was wounded.”

In addition to the Bronze Star, Dad was awarded the Purple Heart, although he did not actually claim his medal until 40 years later. Because his injury was minor, he did not believe he was deserving. It was only after attending a 4th Marines reunion in 1984 and talking with former Marines in his unit that he finally decided to complete the paperwork and accept his Purple Heart medal.

Of course, my dad survived the war and returned to his hometown of Loogootee in southern Indiana to live a long and productive life. He and his wife, Marcella, raised seven children. I was the second, born on June 16, 1952, eight years to the day after he was wounded on Saipan.

Dad passed away in the spring of 1997 at age 76. Although he’s been gone for 17 years, Father’s Day remains special. That it falls this year on the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Saipan adds much to the moment.

The generation that fought so courageously through those awful battles of WWII is dwindling quickly. While fewer and fewer of them remain on this Earth, we hold their memories close to our hearts.

Whether they are our fathers, our grandfathers, uncles or brothers, the power of their presence will never leave us. And whether they served at Normandy, Saipan or other locations around the globe, we honor their service with reverence and gratitude.

I cling to wonderful memories of my dad and all he meant to me and his entire family. Those personal memories are mine to cherish. But what he and those of his generation did for us is a debt we can never adequately repay.

On this Father’s Day, they belong to the ages.

Max Jones can be reached at 812-231-4336, or by email at max.jones@tribstar.com. Follow him on Twitter, @TribStarMax.

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