|Jim Dekle at 17 years of age|
About 30 or more years ago, my car broke down on West Duval Street in Lake City. I was able to get it to one of the garages on a side street off Duval, and I took a seat waiting for my wife Lane to come get me while the mechanic worked on my car. A gentleman who was sitting on a bench near me asked me if I was a Dekle. I admitted it. He then asked me if I was Sonny Dekle’s boy. I immediately knew from the question that he was an old-time citizen of Union County. Nobody in Lake City called my father Sonny. He hated that nickname, and when we moved to Lake City, he became Jim Dekle. I emulated his name change. When we lived in Union County I was Bobby—a name which I also hated. When we moved to Lake City in 1960, I became Bob.
Anyhow, I said yes, I was Sonny Dekle’s boy. He told me I looked just like my father, which was not really news to me. Then a sort of a nostalgic expression came on his face and he told me that one time shortly after World War II, he saw my father lay out six sailors in a ditch in front of the Women’s Club in Lake Butler. He said he was upstairs at the dance, and he could hear the licks Dad was giving them over the music. When he got downstairs, the fight was over, and Dad was victorious. Of course, I had to ask Dad about the incident the next time I saw him.
Dad got angry and said that no Lake Butlerite came to his aid and he had to handle the six men all by himself. He thought that being a hometown boy and being jumped by soldiers from Camp Blanding, he deserved some help from his fellow citizens. Were they soldiers or sailors? He remembered them being soldiers. What happened?
Dad had just got back to Lake Butler after being mustered out of the Marine Corps, and he had come home with a fellow Marine from the area. There was a dance being held at the Women’s Club the very night he got home, but his mother was sick and his father (who was the Sheriff) was on patrol. Dad and his friend agreed that they would take turns going to the dance. Dad went first, and his friend stayed at the house with his mother. All they had to wear was their Marine uniforms, so Dad went in a neatly pressed uniform. Dad was a very good dancer in his time, and he put in to dance with all the girls at the dance. Everyone knew him, and they were all glad to see him. Except there were some soldiers there from Camp Blanding who decided he was a stranger and was horning in on their territory and dancing with their girls. It soon became apparent that the soldiers were looking for trouble, so Dad decided to leave. As he approached the front door to leave, two soldiers blocked his way and wouldn’t let him out. He hit them both under the chin with a double uppercut, and four more soldiers piled on him. After the fight was over, his uniform was shredded, but he was the last man standing. He went back home and told his friend, “Now it’s your turn to go to the dance.” His friend declined.
I asked Dad how he was able to single-handedly defeat six soldiers. He again became angry, “They had been playing soldier, and I had been fighting a war.”
Over the years I have had a number of men volunteer to me that they thought Dad was utterly fearless. I think one of the best compliments I ever got was from a deputy sheriff who told me, “You’re just like your Dad; you’ve got b@lls the size of watermelons.” He was, of course, wrong about me, but I can’t argue with his assessment of my father.
When Dad came back from the war, he had a full-blown case of PTSD. Of course, PTSD hadn’t been “invented” yet. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned of PTSD, and that explained a lot about some of Dad’s personality quirks. I recall watching a documentary about the 50th anniversary of D-Day with Dad, and I had never seen him get so upset. As they were talking about the planning of the invasion, he said they were going to get men needlessly killed. The assault was timed for just after low tide. When the tide is low, Dad explained, there is more beach to cross. Soldiers running from a landing boat across an open beach are sitting ducks for enemy fire. The less beach you must cover, the fewer casualties you suffer. The assault should have been made at high tide. In the leadup to Desert Storm, there was a good deal of talk about the Marines making an amphibious assault on Kuwait as a part of the attack. Again Dad became extremely agitated. “If there’s any way they can invade without making an amphibious assault,” he said, “they need to do it that way.” I didn’t really understand why he was so upset until I read Joseph H. Alexander’s Storm Landings: Epic Amphibious Battles in the Central Pacific.
My father seldom talked about his experiences in the Pacific during World War II, and when he did he it was almost never about combat. I decided to find out about what he experienced by reading histories of the war in the Pacific, and that is how I came to read Storm Landings. I have read two very good first-person accounts of the war in the Pacific—Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific, and E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa. The best overview of the Marine experience in the Pacific is, in my opinion, Robert Leckie’s Strong Men Armed: The United States Marines Against Japan. The title, of course, is an allusion to Luke 11:21 (KJV): “When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace.”
Dad’s last campaign was Iwo Jima, the only battle of World War II where the Marines took more casualties than they inflicted. Dad was in the Third Marine Division, which was supposed to be floating reserves. He would talk about the great fireworks display of the shelling and the young Marines from the Fourth and Fifth Divisions going over the side into the landing boats. And he would talk about getting the word that the Third was also going into action. All he would say about what happened after he hit the beach was that he really wasn't needed. He had a specialty as a telephone man. He ran wire for communications, but they owned so little of the island when he got there that they didn't need to run telephone wires--they could shout orders to the front lines. He did tell Mom what he did, and she later shared his experience with us. He was assigned to bag the bodies of fallen Marines--to match severed limbs to torsos and put the pieces in body bags, which were stacked like firewood.
An Advertisement from Life Magazine Featuring
a Photo of Dad Stringing Wire
Dad considered Iwo Jima a worthless piece of rock that the United States wasted thousands of lives on to no purpose. After having done enough reading about the Pacific war, I was able to explain to him the strategic value of Iwo Jima. I think it was some comfort to him.
Dad did tell one story about being point man on a patrol. He loved bananas, and when they came up on a banana tree, he just had to climb it to "harvest" some bananas. As he made his way to the tree, he came up on a Japanese Imperial Marine sleeping on the ground. He reached down to take the safety off of his M-1 carbine when disaster struck. The magazine release on an M-1 carbine is very close to the safety. He hit the magazine release by accident and dumped his magazine onto the ground. The noise woke the Japanese soldier, and Dad was almost immediately looking down the barrel of the soldier's Arisaka. He began to call out "Whup, whup, whup!" Somehow this frightened the soldier, and he jumped up and fled without shooting Dad. Dad didn't climb the banana tree, having lost his appetite for bananas.
Jim Dekle Climbing a Palm Tree in the Pacific
(He's the One on Top)
Dad came home from the Pacific with three bronze campaign stars, a Purple Heart, and a Bronze Star for what his discharge papers described as "Duty beyond call." I tried to get him to tell what he did to earn the Bronze Star, but he would only say it had something to do with his squad being pinned down by machine gun fire.
William Tecumseh Sherman is supposed to have said that “War is Hell,” and Dad (who was 17 when he enlisted) suffered his share of Hell. Apparently, he dished out some Hell also. In conversations with his pastor, Bo Hammock, he said he didn’t think that he deserved to go to Heaven and didn’t see how he could ever do enough good to get there. Bo was able to comfort him with the explanation that nobody deserves to go to heaven, and nobody can do enough good to get there—that’s where God’s grace comes in.
What got me to thinking about all this again was a project my son John is working on. He’s a musician, and he’s writing a song about Dad’s experiences in the war. It’s sketchy on details because we don’t know many details, but I think it evokes the trauma of combat and the lasting emotional scars of PTSD quite well.