No Ordinary Joes: The Extraordinary True Story of Four Submariners in War and Love and Life.
NO ORDINARY JOES is a combat account of naval war, POW suffering, determination, and pain of reconciliation. Author Larry Colton's focus is the early sub campaigns in the Pacific and the tragically brief career of the USS Grenadier. Others have written of the ghastly experiences of American submarine crewmen in Japanese captivity; Colton adds to this legacy the intense, agonizing stories of four sailors, and their differing individual responses to their shared ordeal.
In history, the Grenadier is better known for the POW experiences of its crew than combat action. Her career under Captain James Fitzgerald was brief, cut short by a torpedo in the area of Phuket Island in April 1943. Heavily damaged, internally afire, the dying boat sank, plunging almost 300 feet into the sucking mud of the ocean bottom. When the crew revived enough power to surface, they found themselves adrift, unable to make headway, in the path of oncoming Japanese ships. The men scuttled the sub and were captured.
Ashore, they were forced to stand for days at a time as torturous interrogations began. Eventually they wound up at a steel mill in Fukuoka, Japan, where they remained until the end of the war. Daily life was an amalgam of resistance, hope, fantasy, resentment, and trivial obsessions, shot through with uncertainty about what new mistreatment each day would bring. Privation did not bring out the best in all, and some turned against their crewmates.
Against this backdrop of misery, Colton shows the varied responses of four crewmembers. One, Tim McCoy, sought to rebel against his captors in ways large and small. Chuck Vervalin vowed to survive to return to his Australian girlfriend, Gwen. Bob Palmer, similarly, sustained himself with thoughts of his bride, Barbara. Gordy Cox struggled against malnutrition and serious illness to survive. Colton follows all four through the years of captivity, relying on journal entries, diaries, and letters from home.
The men's Japanese captors remained mysterious. They paid the prisoners nominal sums for their work. Unpredictably and irregularly, they passed out Red Cross food and supply parcels. They treated each other as callously as they did the POWs. They made absurd, self-serving excuses for themselves at the end of the war. They were unable to perceive, let alone bridge, the culture gaps among the many different nationalities of their POW populations. Naturally, as in all such accounts, Japan comes off as poorly as Nazi Germany.
War was hard for Colton's men, and peace was not much better. Life after 1945 was a difficult adjustment. Though the term did not exist then, they suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, treating it variously with alcohol, marriage, faith, and looking forward. Many readers will find their postwar marital and family crises more disquieting than their tortures at the hands of the Japanese. After all, while reading about the horrors of captivity, we know they will end in 1945. Not so the personal problems; they may have no end at all. The narrative is grim: divorce, alcoholism, father-son alienation, and years of estrangement. This seems at odds with most WWII memoirs.
The most compelling parts of the book are the struggle to save the Grenadier and then to scuttle her; the POWs discovering liberty in Japan at the end of the war; the B-29 raids; the frivolous mistreatment of prisoners; and, improbably, one POW playing catch with a captor. The stateside sections, seldom present in such memoirs, are intense, too. Colton excels in evoking the magic, manic sensibility of life then: sudden marriages, quiet abortions, family pressures, flipping emotional states, war brides, and the stress of waiting to hear from loved ones, along with the anxieties and ingenuities of life during the Depression before the war.
By his own account, Colton had difficulty completing his intense, complicated story. His first interview subject, Bob Palmer, died immediately after they spoke. In studying the lives of these men, he found only loose ends. Yet after so many memoirs where the story stops in September 1945, or at the return home, this complexity makes for a different, richer, more resonant story.
Today, for these men, there are still evil memories to overcome, reconciliations to achieve, and families to consider. Of them, one has faith, one has grievances, one propounds a disjointed philosophy. Yet they struggle to do their best; Chuck Vervalin, for one, remarried his divorced Aussie wife, Gwen, so that his pension would provide for her upon his death. Maybe the vets of the Grenadier were children of hardship with feet of clay, but they were no ordinary joes.
Flemington, New Jersey