Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Dad's Last School Speech

James Mason is my dad. It has been his joy for many years now to share his experience and love of country at a school assembly on Veteran's Day. This year, at 94,  he decided that it was time to let that go.. But he wanted to send a paper with a few details of his service on it so they could still hear from one of the few remaining soldiers from "the greatest generation." Here is what he sent them.

JAMES L. MASON.101st Airborne, US ARMY, WW 2

It was my privilege to serve my country in World War 2, and my privilege now to share my story and that of my brave comrades with a new generation I hope will love this great nation enough  to serve when they are called upon as well.

In April 1939, almost ten years after the Great Depression began, more than one in five Americans still could not find work. I joined the Army in 1939 in order to have a little money. I signed up to go to Hawaii. The war hadn’t started for us then, but I can’t tell you how proud I felt the first time I was on the parade ground. The band played “Stars and Stripes Forever” while we marched up and down the field. It seemed like I grew 6 inches that morning. I was so glad God led me to unite with the United States Army and serve our great country.

I was stationed at Fort Shaftner in Hawaii. On December 7, 1941, early in the morning, the Japanese carried out a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. That morning, my boss had requested that I take his car to drive his wife to her job. I drove her in towards town, and about 7 am we arrived in the parking lot of John Rogers Airport. John Rogers Airport, just about 7 miles from Pearl Harbor, was attacked by a large force of Japanese planes.  I could see them coming from the east in my rear view mirror to attack the ships in the bay. At this time they hit the ship Missouri and destroyed it. Because of that, over 1000 men are still in a watery grave.

We saw the smoke and planes, so I immediately turned back and went back to Ft. Shafter, about 11 miles back.  When I got there, women were in their nightgowns and robes, and enlisted men and officers were all on the parade grounds, watching the confusion, trying to figure out what was happening. Japanese observation planes with the symbol of the Rising Sun painted on their sides were swooping in so low, I could see the pilots, and even the goggles on their faces.
At the very time of this attack, Japanese officials were having a council meeting with our leaders in Washington, DC. It was such a betrayal. This is why all history books call it a “day that will live in infamy.” Because of this horrific attack, the United States was plunged into the war. This was so impacting on our entire nation. More than 2500 soldiers dies in one day, more than 1000 more were wounded, 18 American ships were damaged or destroyed, and 300 airplanes. It was a deep wound. In fact, about a dozen years later, our nation still hurt from the many losses of brothers, fathers, and sons. A young Japanese student was ill and stranded in the small town with no place the stay in the small town where I pastored. My family and I opened our home for him to recuperate. A member of the community expressed the sentiments of many when he said, “Mason is surely a better forgiver than I am. I would never let a Japanese man in my house.”

That experience led me to Officer’s Candidate School, and to paratrooper’s training. I was part of the Screaming Eagles, the 101st Airborne. The training was very difficult—we started with 200, and ended up with 103.

Our regiment was requested to jump for Winston Churchill and the other senior staff. We were placed on a hill somewhere in England to be viewed by Churchill and his group. We gathered to positions. Half would jump and the other half would stand would stand at attention, waiting for Churchill and the group to review them. After Churchill reviewed us, our commander told us we could break ranks. We gathered around Churchill’s jeep to hear him. He stood in front of us on the passenger side of the jeep. We gathered around quickly and placed ourselves as near him as possible. I was so close to him I could have reached out and untied his shoelaces.

That man was so inspiring. He spoke with great compassion about the suffering in Europe and passion about all the people who had been hurt by Hitler. He told us how much the free world was counting on us. With hot tears running down his face and cheeks, he spoke with urgency. “We have the tools to win the war, but we need your help. Can we count on you men?”
He was asking us to make a commitment. I sensed in my heart this was right and I made the commitment: “I am willing by God's help to do my best.”

About 2 weeks before we would jump in Normandy, they moved us into a marshaling area with a barricade around it so no one could leave. They had built a sand table as large as a room, the exact replica of the place we were to drop in Normandy.  Houses, railroads—they all were on there. The airplanes would fly over and take photographs, and anything that changed, they would change on the sand table so we knew how to best land. We trained, played cards, wrote home to our loved ones, and tried to keep  each other cheered up.

After about 12 days there, it was time to board the troops. General Dwight Eisenhower came and encouraged us before we boarded at about 8 pm. There was no laughing and joking on the plane. The men sat with heads bowed, thinking about their families and home and what might transpire in the next hours. When it was time to jump, we had to run out the door of the plane, only seconds between us. There were 35 in our platoon, and we all went together; 17 on my plane. I only saw 11 of them again. We dropped out around midnight over Carentan, France,  south in the Normandy peninsula.  We were to guard the bridge there. But the air was red with tracer bullets. Planes were being shot down and burning and it was raining. It was a terrible night. We had a jump area, but now we couldn't fire because it was so dark. The pilots had to scatter the planes to keep us from getting shot down.

So we were very scattered and disorganized  when we landed. We had to find each other,  and to do it, we had a little toy cricket. We used to get them in Cracker Jacks. Walking around alone in the dark, if we heard a noise we would click the cricket. If it was an American, he would click his back and then say the password, which  was an American cigarette, like Marlboro. When someone clicked back, I would say, "I'm Lieutenant Mason, 101st Airborne. Fall in."

That's how I gathered up men. The men were from different outfits because of the scattered planes. I was only 21 years old. I've been asked many times if I was scared. Yes, I was scared. I was scared all the time I was in the war, but it didn't paralyze me. Even though I was scared, I did the best I could. I did what I was supposed to do. I remember walking across the field at one point in the pitch black, and I clicked and heard the other person clicking back to me. As we drew close, I saw it was my immediate supervisor. He was my idol. I ran up and hugged him. He didn't say anything, but his presence reassured me. I thought, "We'll be all right now."

June 7---It was a terrible night. Many died, but many of us lived to fight another day.

This was the area that the story "The Longest Day" comes from. We liberated many homes, and drove off many Germans. But on June 21, I was wounded in 11 places, and my arm was severely damaged. I looked down and saw white bones sticking out in two places. My leg was shot. I had enough presence of mind to take off my belt and put a tourniquet on my arm before shock took over. A piece of shrapnel the size of a hen’s egg had entered my side and stopped right before my liver. I was operated on in a tent field hospital right on the front line. I woke  to witness 2 German first aid men pick me up and carry me on a stretcher to an ambulance that eventually got me on a plane to Winchester, England. I was in the hospital for six months there, and then I went back to limited service for the remainder of the war. I received a Purple Heart.

I am proud and grateful to have served my country.