Honor Those Who Paid the Price of Freedom

 I’m remembering my dad, Louis (Little Ory) Jenkins. If he were still alive, he would be 112 years old. He was born in Folsom, LA, on May 25, 1909. He grew up in Ponchatoula, where he was a star football player for Ponchatoula High School (Class of 1930) and the star shortstop for the Ponchatoula Athletics semipro team. He was a founder of the Ponchatoula Volunteer Fire Department, and he lived at the fire station. His dad died young, and he was responsible for his mother Dora Rogers Jenkins, his younger brothers Bailey and Sherwood and his sister Alma. So he went into business for himself. 

It was the depths of the Depression and people were hungry. My dad had the idea that people would be drinking more coffee because coffee can quell your hunger. He researched the coffee business. Starting with nothing, he built a company that imported, roasted, and distributed coffee. Even though times were hard, he became very successful. He supported his family. 

In 1937, he built a beautiful brick home in Ponchatoula. He drove his brand-new convertible around town, often with his pet monkey on board! He was a pilot and owned his own airplane. During the 1930’s, while he was in his 20’s, he was the top vote-getter for the Ponchatoula Town Council and was elected mayor pro-tem. He briefly served as Mayor. As he said, “I had the world by the tail!”

My dad was 32 years old when the war came — too old to be drafted. But like millions of others his age, he loved our country so much and knew everything was at stake. So he volunteered for the war, or tried to. At age 32, that wasn’t easy. He had to fight even to get in. The Army wouldn’t take him because of his age. Although he was a pilot and owned his own plane, they wouldn’t let him be a pilot because he was too short, only 5’4”. In fact, the recruiter at the Army Air Corps recruiting office told him, “Jenkins, you are too short, too old, too fat, and too ugly to fly for the Army Air Corps! Get your ass outta here!” But he was determined to fight the Germans or the Japanese.

Daddy found out the Coast Guard was putting together a “suicide mission” to the Caribbean, and they were having trouble finding men. They told him that once they left U.S. territorial waters, they would be assigned to the Navy. But there was a catch: What they really needed was a cook. “Can you cook, Jenkins?” the recruiter asked. Lying, my dad said, “Yes sir, I can cook anything!” After he signed up, the recruiter said, “Jenkins, I hope you CAN cook, because if those men find out you can’t, they’ll throw your ass overboard!” That statement had my dad concerned, so he came up with a plan. In those days, most food was rationed and civilians were very limited in what they could buy, but the military could buy anything. 

Once the men were onboard their boat, my dad gathered them together and said, “Fellows, I don’t know why on earth they made me the cook, because I can’t cook anything, but here’s what we’re going to do. We don’t need ration coupons. We can go into New Orleans and buy anything we want! You come with me, and we’re going to buy your favorite foods. You probably know how to cook your favorite food, so you can teach me to cook it, and that’s all we’re going to eat — your favorite foods!” Well, they bought the idea, went into New Orleans, got the best steaks and everything else, and the men taught my daddy to cook! In fact, he became a great cook, and after the war, he usually cooked for our family. 

The photo is of my dad in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, during World War II. He served on the last of the wooden sailing ships to fight for the United States. It was a “suicide mission” put together in New Orleans to search for German submarines, which threatened Allied shipping in the Caribbean. The mission was aptly named because only two of them returned. These vessels were yachts the government had seized from the Southern Yacht Club on Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans. They stripped them down and fitted them each with a couple of machine guns on the deck and one depth charge to drop on a German sub. 

Why would we send poorly equipped former yachts into combat?  It was all-out war.  We threw everything we had at the Nazi’s.  Failure was not an option. My dad was the cook on one of the vessels but during combat he was assigned to one of the machine guns. 

There he was.  A pilot, a businessman, the former mayor of his town.  Now he was an ordinary seaman fighting for his country. He didn’t mind.  He wanted to be exactly where he was.

The so-called Haitian Flotilla was based in Port au Prince, Haiti, during the war. They sailed throughout the Caribbean hunting for German submarines. The Germans were not impressed with this tiny fleet and would surface and ram the U.S. vessels or sink them with the sub’s deck guns. They wouldn’t waste a torpedo on such a small target. But, on one occasion, Dad’s group of former yachts cornered a German sub in an island bay, dropped their depth charges, and believe they sank the sub. 

Life was different when they were in Port-au-Prince.  Ernest Hemenway was there, working on one of his novels.  My dad and he became drinking buddies. Daddy said Hemenway always wrote when he was drinking. The President of Haiti, Eli Lescot and the commander of U.S. Naval forces in the Caribbean would often dine at the Crow’s Nest, a spectacular residence on the top of the mountain overlooking the city.  When they invited Hemenway to join them, he would bring my daddy, who would cook for them. They always invited Daddy to join them. 

When Hemenway was in Haiti, he always had an old black man follow him to keep away thieves and beggars. He slept outside Hemenway’s door. When Hemenway left Haiti, the old man latched onto my dad and provided the same services, including sleeping right outside Dad’s room.

In 1970, my wife Diane and I traced my dad’s steps back to Port-au-Prince and stayed in the Hotel Splendid (Spon-di), the same hotel my daddy stayed in.  It was one of the most beautiful hotels I’ve ever seen. Not what you’d expect.

My dad told me about voodoo and zombies.  He told me it is real. I investigated in Haiti for myself.  I assure you it is real, and it’s not good.  I might write about it someday. It is nothing to get close to.  I advise you to stay away from it.

On two occasions, Dad’s convoy of small vessels escorted troop transports part of the way from the Panama Canal to North Africa. They would sail alongside the transports in hopes of stopping a German torpedo on its way to the troop carrier. They were the reverse of kamikazees, putting themselves in harm’s way in order to protect the men going to fight the Nazi’s in North Africa.

Ships my dad served on were sunk twice by the Germans, and in one sinking he was burned over much of his body. My dad spoke of storms at sea where the swells would be 100 feet high, especially in the Windward Passage. He suffered a broken back during one of these storms. With the burns and his broken back, dad was shipped home to the U.S. for surgery. It didn’t go well. You can imagine what back surgery was like in 1944!

He met my mom, Doris Laverne Rowlett, while recuperating at the Naval hospital in Galveston. My mom was from Alvin. It was 1945, and her uncle took her to a dance. My dad saw her and walked across the dance floor to meet her. He was in his dark Navy uniform. “Little Lady,” he said, “may I have this dance?” It was love at first sight! She told me she was enchanted by his good looks and his maturity.

My dad was 13 years older than my mother, and they were worried that her mom and dad wouldn’t approve of them. My grandfather, Fred Rowlett of Houston, was a cowboy as a young man and had been in the Texas National Guard during World War I. He had not been able to go overseas during the war because he had only one eye. He felt guilty for not going. I think he enjoyed hearing my dad’s experiences.  He and my father were only 10 years apart in age. But when they met, he and my grandmother, Beatrice Eernisse, originally from South Dakota, fell in love with my dad. They had so much in common. 

My mom’s brother Walter Rowlett served in the Army Air Corps in World War II, and he and my dad met during the war when Uncle Walter was home on leave. Uncle Walter, my Aunt Dorothy,  my dad Ory, and my mother Doris got along beautifully, and our two families became very close.

After the war, my dad returned to Ponchatoula and tried to restart his life. He courted my mom by mail. I still have one of their love letters. It was so proper! In the letter, he invited my mom to come stay in Ponchatoula for the holidays, but he was very clear to point out she would be staying with his friends, Mrs. Pittman and her daughter. I’m sure my grandpa Rowlett read that letter, just to be sure everything was going to be straight up! My dad said, “There is someone who loves you, waiting for you in Ponchatoula!”

After the war, the injuries caused my dad constant pain and suffering. As mentioned earlier, before the war, he was very successful. He owned a coffee importing business, a restaurant, and a cleaners in Ponchatoula. He had a brand new brick home and drove a brand new convertible, and had no debt. As he said, “I had it made!” But the war changed all that. He lost everything while he was gone. 

When he returned home, he had nothing. I’m not going to go into all the gory details and complain about how our government treats veterans (which is nothing new), but my dad was totally disabled by his war injuries and couldn’t work. Yet, the government wouldn’t pay him a disability pension — not a penny! 

So he had to work, even though he was always in great pain. It wasn’t until I was grown — 21 years old in 1968 — 23 years after the war — that I took his appeal to the VA Appeals Board in Washington and won for him the total disability pension he deserved. 

I grew up in the home of a disabled veteran. It was hard on him. He was so smart, so wise, so accomplished. But the pain and agony were ever-present. He suffered from depression and long bouts of alcoholism. The war changed him and humbled him. But he always kept the same passionate love of this country that made him and so many others volunteer to go to war. I always considered him a hero. He gave his country everything.

When my daddy died, I received a letter from his commanding officer, Cmdr. Edward “Buddy” Jahncke of New Orleans. During one of the sinkings, he saved Cmdr. Jahncke’s life and, during the other, Jahncke saved his. The letter said, “Your father was a real man, and I will always love him.” 

My dad wasn’t a big man in size, but I learned from him you don’t have to be big to be great. It’s funny the things you remember about a person. I always think of my Dad’s smile and his laugh. And his strong hands. 

In 1980, my dad committed suicide.  He left us a note asking forgiveness and saying he could not tolerate the pain any longer. War leaves long, deep pain.  The price of freedom is very great indeed.

When my mother Doris was still alive, she would often say, “I think about him everyday. I miss him so much!” So do I!

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.