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JARDINE: Reason for vet's survival a town away

Lonie Black and Vern Korock have lived just 17 miles apart since Black moved to Turlock in 1962.

They're both 83 years old. They've never met and, until recently, had never heard of each other.

Yet, Black survived World War II in no small part because of Korock, a longtime Modesto resident.

Every event of every kind has its intangibles, elements that affect the outcome even though the principals might need years or even a lifetime to make sense of it all.

This is one of those cases.

As a member of the Navy Seabees, Korock helped build the runway on Tinian Island in the Pacific's Northern Mariana Islands. On Aug. 6, 1945, the B-29 Enola Gay took off from Tinian and dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later and 64 years ago today, another B-29, this one called Bockscar, took off from the same airfield and dropped the second bomb, this time on Nagasaki.

About 200,000 Japanese died in those two cities.

The death and devastation compelled Emperor Hirohito to announce Japan's surrender to its people Aug. 15, 1945.

Had they resisted, the Americans planned to launch Operation Downfall, the code name for the invasion of Japan. That is where Black would have been.

U.S. military officials knew such an invasion would be a bloodbath. They expected 1,000 American deaths an hour during the early going, a minimum of 125,000 overall and possibly 1 million casualties (dead and wounded) to end the war. Countless more Japanese soldiers and citizens would have died as well.

"They said it would have made D-Day seem like a piece of cake," Black said.

By the time he turned 19, Black had fought and survived three major campaigns: New Guinea and the retakings of Leyte and Luzon in the Philippines. But invading Japan would be different, he knew. If Operation Downfall had gotten the go-ahead, he and the other engineers of the 11th Airborne Division would have been among the first troops to hit the shores, even before the infantry. And, likely, among the first of the casualties.

Instead, the bombs compelled the Japanese to surrender. Instead of dying in a flaming troop transport that took a direct kamikaze hit, or from machine-gun fire on a beach, Black walked through the door of his parents' home in Southern California on Christmas Eve 1945.

"Mom didn't know I was coming," he said.

For that he thanks men like Korock.

The Navy turned him away when he tried to enlist in 1942 because he was color blind. A year later, he found a way into the war.

"I heard about the Seabees," Korock said. "I went in; they took me in Portland, Ore."

They sent him to Norfolk, Va., for boot camp, and then to Gulfport, Miss., for advanced training. He soon shipped out to the Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands, where his outfit built an airstrip, using as its base coral they dragged in from ocean.

"The prettiest airplane landing I ever saw in my life was a Corsair on that airstrip," Korock said. "The whole island was only about a quarter-mile wide."

In late July 1944, American forces began their invasion of Tinian. Even before the Marines drove off the Japanese, Korock and the Seabees were on the island and building the runway that would play such a vital role. Within a year, they had built the world's largest airfield, complete with four 8,500-foot runways and home to 1,000 B-29 bombers, among them the Enola Gay and the Bockscar.

On July 26, 1945, Black's 19th birthday, the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis dropped anchor off Tinian's coast. It carried the innards of the "Little Boy," the first of the atomic bombs. The components were brought on the island in a shroud of secrecy.

"We had no idea there was any atomic bomb on the island," Korock said. "There was one part of the island, where the A-bomb was, that was secured from everybody but the upper echelon."

Four days later, two Japanese torpedoes sank the Indianapolis.

The departure of the Enola Gay on Aug. 6 was no different from other bombing runs to most of those stationed on Tinian. They didn't know until after the Bockscar dropped the second A-bomb, "Fat Man," a few days later what had happened.

"Today, everybody would have known because they let the news out," Korock said. "Back then, they never let the news out."

Emperor Hirohito's surrender announcement told the world the war finally would end. No one felt a greater sense of relief than Black.

"Knowing what our future was going to be like (if the Americans had invaded), I cried like a baby, and I'm not ashamed to admit it," he said.

The 11th Airborne were among the first Americans on the ground in Japan, and Black was understandably mistrustful of the Japanese. But they encountered no resistance.

After returning to the states, he worked in his father's orchard and then went to work for Frito-Lay, which is what brought Black, his wife, Virginia, and their family to the valley in 1962.

Korock met his wife, Leona, at the Merry Gardens skating rink in Modesto before he went off to war. Upon his return, they started their family.

Dropping the atomic bombs remains as controversial today as it was after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with Iran and North Korea emerging as rogue nations with nuclear arms programs. The difference between then and now? The United States used the bombs to end a war.

The vast majority of World War II veterans believe the United States did what it had to do by dropping the bombs.

"I wear an Airborne hat all the time when we go out to eat or whatever," Black said. "I'll have people come up and say, 'You were in World War II?' "

Occasionally, someone will remark, " 'You shouldn't have dropped the A-bomb on those poor people,' " Black said. "And I'll say, 'Would you rather have had 200,000 of their people die or have us invade the islands and lose half of our army?' "

Korock believes President Truman's decision to use the bombs saved more lives than they took.

"I don't think he had any choice," Korock said. "He couldn't gamble on losing another 100,000 or so against losing a few. Look at all the lives we lost taking some of those islands."

Black, dead certain he would have died in an invasion, is ever so thankful to those whose hard work and determination prevented it. That includes Korock, the next-town-over neighbor he's never met.

"The way I look at it," Black said. "I've been living on borrowed time for 64 years."

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or jjardine@modbee.com.

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