OTTUMWA — People are treating veterans with more respect these days, said former soldier Jim Snook.
Now 93 years old, Ottumwa-born Snook lives just south of Moulton. While out one December day in 1941, he and some Ottumwa friends hopped in the car after hunting squirrel.
"We turned the radio on and heard that Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. At first we thought it was some kind of science fiction radio show or just some goofy radio announcer. But there was no such luck.”
In 1944, after completing Army Air Force training, Snook boarded a ship on the west coast of the United States. He was with the 597th Signal Aircraft Warning Battalion, which was to set up short-range but extremely portable radar units on one Pacific island after another. That ship was an adventure in itself, Snook said. A long adventure.
"It was 31 days," he said, "and we went with no escort. It was an old Dutch freighter that had been converted into a troop carrier."
They made it to just off the southern coast of New Guinea, in an area heavy with enemy troops. They stayed on board the ship another month.
"We were on there for 61 days. It wasn't a cruise ship. It just had hammocks for the 350 of us," he said.
He later read in a military publication it was the longest troops at been at sea on a troop carrier.
As fighting continued, Snook's unit would land and set up its radar to warn soldiers of approaching aircraft. The Japanese would send bombs, or enemy soldiers would sneak out of the jungles in an effort to kill a soldier or two.
"It was called 'harassment'. Don't get me wrong, those aircraft, they killed some of our boys on that island."
Later, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur's army returned to the Philippines, Snook was with them.
"When he left he said, 'I shall return.' This time he said, 'I have returned.'"
Snook's unit thought they were in for some good news. Army clerks were figuring which soldiers to send back to the United States as the country marched closer to victory. Various factors went into a point system, from battles survived to number of children at home. To be discharged, soldiers needed 60 points. Snook and his buddies averaged 110.
Snook recalled a sergeant on base saying, "Where have you boys been? You should have been home three months ago!"
The 597th Signal Aircraft Warning Battalion, unfortunately, was mission essential for a planned invasion. They weren't going anywhere — except for Japan. As the fleet moved forward, word came down that the United States had dropped two atomic bombs and that the Japanese had surrendered. Despite the dangers he still faced, including a storm that almost sank part of the fleet, Snook and his battalion were thrilled.
He spent a few weeks in Japan, then took a fast boat back to the States where he was honorably discharged after 37 months of service. In all that time, he'd had one furlough, nine or 10 months earlier.
He was getting ready to take a train to the Quad Cities area, where his wife had moved to be near her parents during the war. She still had no idea he was coming home. Though it would be a good surprise, Snook thought it would be wise to give her some warning, especially since she was, by that time, nine months pregnant.
An operational security rule was still in force, however: no phone calls allowed.
The company commander at the Army base in Kansas told the young soldier if he didn't say a word about troop movements, he could use the phone on his desk. His wife wasn't at home; her mother answered and congratulated Jim – his wife had given birth that day to a boy.
"When I arrived in Moline, I went to where they were living in an apartment above a grocery store. My in-laws had the other apartment. I wasn't sure which door was [our apartment]. I knocked on the door, and it was my in-laws. They still didn't know when I'd be getting in. My mother-in-law shouted for my wife."
She came outside with their first son, and in her arms, the new baby.
"I'll be honest with you," Snook said. "I cried."
These days, he said, things are different. His oldest boy is getting ready to celebrate his 73rd birthday. His kids have all done well, he said. Snook's father-in-law invited him to work, and then become a partner, in his Moline auto body business. After retirement, he moved back to Iowa.
These days, he said, members of the public are once again treating veterans with a lot of respect. He traveled to Washington, D.C., on one of the Honor Flights. They gave him and an old friend from Ottumwa World War II veteran hats, which actually inspires the occasional, "Thank you for what you did," he said.
He recalled the worries of going overseas. Mostly his concerns were for his growing family.
"There was a lot of worry because you don't know if you'd ever get to see them again."
And the Honor Flight?
"It was very well run, a happy trip," Snook said, "but it was sad to see how many veterans are buried there at Arlington Cemetery."
— To follow reporter Mark Newman on Twitter, see @CourierMark