War has horrific stories and heroic stories, stories of encouragement and loss. But there are also millions of little stories, of millions of soldiers. The kinds of stories that even after 60-plus years, a soldier can recall as though they happened last week.
Jean Kerr, 88, is a Marine Corps veteran who served during World War II and fought in the Pacific on the islands of Peleliu and Okinawa. He now resides with his son’s family in the green hills of Yamhill County, Ore.
After serving three years in the U.S. Marines, Kerr spent his time working as a logger; serving as a doorman for the House of Representatives in Salem, Ore.; and most recently, talking with high school students about his military service and telling them stories.
“It’s a lot of little things,” Kerr says of his time in the South Pacific during World War II.
Kerr’s own story began when he decided as a young man that he wanted to serve. He went to Portland and enlisted in the military, and soon found himself in training at Camp Pendleton near San Diego.
Kerr tells a number of stories about his time in the Pacific theater. Once, he defied authority in a most unexpected way.
During his service in the South Pacific, Kerr was on duty at a checkpoint. Charged with security, he was given very specific instructions: Don’t let anyone through without a permit signed by two of the commanding officers in the area.
One vehicle came through his station and requested clearance. Kerr checked the permit, looking for the signatures. He saw that the permit was signed, but not with the signatures that he was looking for. It was signed by General Douglas MacArthur.
The vehicle started to move forward, but Kerr hadn’t lifted the barrier. The officer in the vehicle turned back to Kerr and asked rhetorically if Douglas MacArthur’s signature wasn’t good enough.
“Not around here, it’s not,” replied Kerr.
The officer asked to see Kerr’s superior, who was in a tent about 30 feet away.
He pointed the officer to the tent. The officer again asked if MacArthur’s signature wasn’t good enough. Kerr heard his superior say from the tent, “Not around here, it’s not.”
Still laughing about the tale over 60 years later, Kerr says, “I refused General Douglas MacArthur’s signature and got away with it.”
Kerr also had some unexpected good luck with a famous visiting entertainer. Early in his service, a Bob Hope show visited the place he was stationed. Kerr volunteered to help set up for the show. After helping, Kerr was able to sit up front and enjoy the show.
But he lucked into seeing repeat performances. As Kerr’s unit moved to its next two stops, its path coincided with Bob Hope’s show each time. Kerr chuckled as he recalled seeing the show three times within a couple of weeks.
Not all of Kerr’s memories were so light. At one point, Kerr called himself an old man – not referring to his age now, but rather describing how at 20 years old, he was an old man in comparison to the 17-year-old men under his command. These young men together faced combat with courage.
Kerr endured difficult times in combat at the Battle of Peleliu. Casualty rates in the battle were horrific: over 1,200 were killed and over 5,000 wounded in just 40 days. He lost three of his men in battle. He seems to feel like he himself easily could have been in their place.
At one point during the battle, Kerr was lying on a slope on the island of Peleliu, with enemy snipers zeroed in around the corner from his position.
He had been without food for three days. He asked a fellow soldier, a young private, to relieve him momentarily so he could quickly get something to eat.
Kerr wasn’t 100 yards from his position when he heard gunfire behind him. He turned around, only to see the private who had been shot and killed, his body rolling down the slope from the position Kerr had left just moments before.
Telling the story, Kerr reached up and put two fingers to his forehead indicating where the private had been shot. He then gave a little tap on his shoulder.
“The man upstairs had his hand on me,” Kerr says.
He pulled out a small, worn, leather-bound pocket edition of the New Testament: the same one that he carried in Peleliu and Okinawa over 60 years ago.
It’s World War II stories like these that Kerr shares with local high school students today. He was hesitant at first about going into schools and talking with students. But once he saw how engaged they were with his stories, he started to enjoy speaking about his experiences.
Kerr reads and keeps the letters that the students write to him. He stows them away among old photographs, pamphlets about the war and even a letter of commendation signed by President Harry S Truman.Even though Kerr may describe his service as just “a lot of little things,” his stories add up to much more.
Writing: Chad Swan
Photograph: Joey Paysinger