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Jardine: Column stirs vets' memories

Mail call -- e-mail and voice mail style:

CONNECTIONS -- Just about any column topic can generate a number of e-mails or calls from people who had similar experiences.

Such was the case from my Aug. 9 column about Turlock's Lonie Black and Modesto's Vernon Korock. Black credited Seabees such as Korock with giving him 64 years of "borrowed time." Korock was among the Seabees who built the runway on Tinian Island, from which the Enola Gay and Bockscar departed on their atomic bombing runs that ended World War II in 1945. Had the war not ended, Black would have been in the first wave of the invasion of Japan that, military officials predicted, would have resulted in 1,000 American casualties an hour in the early going and as many as 1 million overall.

After the column appeared, Korock received a phone call from fellow Seabee Ray Gordo of Modesto, who not only was on Tinian but also saw the bombs on a trailer ready to be towed to Tinian's north field.

"Beyond that point, I wasn't privileged in anything," Gordo said. "It was all under chain-link fence and taboo."

Then, Jim Tate of Turlock called me to say he, too, bought the past 64 years because of the invasion.

"I was in the 6th Infantry that was going to be part of Operation Olympic," he said, referring to the code name for the first stage of the invasion of Japan, known overall as Operation Downfall.

Finally, Paul Becker of Sonora said he was in circumstances similar to Black's. A Marine pilot during the Philippines campaign, he flew from a Seabee-built base at Samar, an island in the chain. Recently, while in a fitness class at Columbia College, the retired college administrator struck up a conversation with Jack Watkins of Sonora. The topic turned to their war days.

"I found out he was a Seabee at Samar and had built the runway," Becker said. "We had a great tie. We've talked about it often."

SHIPMATES REUNITE -- Pete Ball of Modesto left Ceres High to join the Navy just weeks before he would have graduated in 1951. He went to school to become a sonarman, and there he met Gary Bowers of Carmel. They became best friends and served on two ships together, beginning with the frigate USS Everett. Of their 10-month tour on the Everett, they spent six months docked in Hong Kong and four months off the coast of North Korea during the war.

"We'd sit out on deck in our shower shoes and T-shirts and watch the jets bomb Wonsan Harbor," Ball said.

After decommissioning the Everett, both men were assigned to the state-of-the-art USS Currier. In the meantime, they played lots of basketball for their ships' teams.

"We played the Chinese Olympic team," Ball said. "We led at halftime, but they won. And that (1952) was an Olympic year. We beat the (South) Korean team. We beat University of Hawaii's team."

When the war ended, Ball mustered out about five months before Bowers. They never saw each other again -- until last week.

Ball recently got an out-of-the-blue phone call from former shipmate Bill McKiver of Mendocino, who had written a book about his time on the Everett, mentioning Ball's basketball prowess. McKiver ultimately put Ball back in touch with Bowers. With their wives, they met for dinner Aug. 9 in Modesto. Both men were excited to reconnect.

"When you haven't seen a guy in 56 years, you both start talking at once," said Ball, who worked 35 years at the James River Paper plant in Ripon. "It brought back a lot of old memories."

FINALLY, TEE TIME -- Eleven months after he began collecting golf equipment to ship to the troops in Iraq, Modesto's Bob Davidson can finally claim "mission accomplished." After numerous delays and red tape, the container full of gear finally arrived and is being dispersed, Davidson said.

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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