2017-05-11 / Opinions

Hancock’s heroism has roots in his rural experiences


The life and times of John Hancock and most other post- World War II veterans were much like it was for many others of that era. Go to college, get a job, raise a family, and enjoy the modern conveniences of the direct telephone lines, the coming of color television, microwave ovens, credit cards, V-8 engines, power steering, radial tires and Saran wrap – among countless other innovations which improved our quality of living.

For Hancock it was different in that while he enjoyed America’s emerging good life, he had experienced the dark side of a brutal war which denied many of his closest friends the pursuit of happiness. “That hurts today, deeply hurts, and it will never go away,” he said at his Athens home in Riverbottom where he and his wife Ruth Ann have enjoyed an atmosphere of love and laughter, sparkling business success, an abundance of friendships, and longevity.

Although he has lived a life of obscurity for the most part, we should always shout out hosannas for his contributions, as a member of the Greatest Generation, who helped bring about the end of World War II.

If he had been a touchdown hero with credits comparable to his military record, we would be erecting statues and seeking him out for autographs and lionizing him as an icon for the ages. Most of us wouldn’t know about him if it weren’t for friends like Rod Davis who is a local WWII historian who could teach history at one of our war colleges with his passion and remarkable depth of knowledge.

You don’t often hear about the John Hancocks of our world because he never talked about the war – the stance so many survivors choose to take. “You have to go through war to realize just how bad it is,” he said. Hancock remembers walking to a canteen below deck after one battle and seeing dead bodies about. “It is hard to get those scenes out of your mind,” he continued, as he stared out the window of his den.

He and Ruth Ann were making plans to leave for New York for the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea, an event which took place last Thursday in New York for the handful of survivors of the battle with tributes coming in person from President Donald Trump and Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

The Battle of the Coral Sea is known as the “battle which saved Australia.” The Japanese objective was to secure Tulagi in the southeastern Solomon Islands and Port Moresby in New Guinea which meant that northern Australia would become within range of Japanese land-based aircraft.

In terms of losses, the battle became something of a draw but it checked, for the first time, the advance of a major Japanese advance, by the Allies. With the Allies using the consequential advantage of military intelligence (our codebreakers knew the Japanese plans), the sinking of four aircraft carriers at the Battle of Midway became the beginning of the end for the Japanese. John Hancock fought in both of those battles and was serendipitously blessed with survival, which is why not a day goes by that he doesn’t think of those whose fate was contrary to his.

Hancock served on the USS Yorktown, which was badly damaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea. A farm boy from Alma in deep South Georgia, he was 17 years old when the standoff between the carrier forces of Japan and the U.S.A. took place, the first carrier battle in the history of the world. He was a forward gunner and was placed there because his wellhoned aim brought about success, based on his rural experience hunting quail and dove. He was expert at leading his shots.

Japanese damage to the Yorktown at the Battle of Midway a month later forced him to abandon ship, his body laden with oil, dazed, and wondering if survival would become his ally. Suddenly, he looked up and saw the USS Anderson, a destroyer gliding in the water to rescue him. “The number on the ship,” he says, “I will never forget – DD 411.” His wounds led to hospitalization in Honolulu. Fortunately he made a quick recovery and returned to the U.S. His dad worked for the railroad and sent him a pass to come home for a couple of weeks. At that point, Hancock did not know that the Yorktown had sunk. Surviving servicemen were told they would be court martialed if they revealed knowledge of any combat results. He did not learn of his ship’s sinking until a newspaper reporter came to his family home in Alma. He broke down and cried, knowing the fate of so many of his friends.

Soon he was back in uniform, this time for training to be a pilot which was his original objective. His next assignment was the aircraft carrier Saratoga, where he served the rest of the war, recording a dogfight record with Japanese Zeros of seven kills.

Living peacefully and actively at 92, John has never made a fuss out of his military record. He is accommodating for interviewers and historians, however. He saw the brutality of war, he knew of the Japanese atrocities to the extent that his patriotic verve is so deep that he would never own a Japanese made vehicle. “If you knew what I know, you probably wouldn’t either.”

“War is hell,” it has often been said, but only those, like John Hancock, who have survived the rigors of debilitating combat, know the depth of the meaning of the phrase.

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