A few weeks ago, I dropped in on a fellow named Russ Post, an 89-year-old veteran of World War II and Korea, who just happens to live on my street. Another guy on our street, Deven, closer to my age, had been suggested I meet with Russ. We finally did. What followed was one of the more interesting and entertaining Saturday afternoons I’ve experienced in quite a while.
Russ took my teenage son and me on a roller-coaster ride from his youth in Western Pennsylvania to the Pacific theater to the Korea War, and rarely in a perfectly straight line. His vivid diversionary descriptions of some of his, shall we say, extra-curricular activities in the military and throughout his upbringing were rather raw, particularly his candidly expressed encounters with the opposite sex. That wasn’t what my son (who blushed) and I had come to hear, but it certainly made for a spirited conversation that easily kept our attention for two-plus hours. Not all the reminiscences seemed relevant or appropriate, but, hey, anyone who got shot up like Russ has earned the right to speak (and boast) as he pleases. It was his house and his life.
John Russell Post was born February 6, 1925, the product of a mother who lived to be 100 (and rode a horse ’til she was 97) and father who lived to 106. Long before we got to his humble beginnings, Russ was showing us photos and sharing stories about the Marine Corps in World War II. You would think that a smelly camp with a bunch of smelly guys would have little to do with pretty girls, but Russ quickly brandished a picture of Miss Pittsburgh, Betty Moska (not her maiden name, which Russ couldn’t recall), who had married one of his lucky buddies, Col. Herb Moska, after she left Grove City College and he left the military.
Russ then told us about an even more interesting photo: a picture of the wife of movie star Tyrone Power. Power just happened to be Russ’s bunkmate during the war, while their unit was in Saipan. Power kept a photo of his lovely, Hollywood-looks girl (known by her stage name, Annabella) sitting atop his ammo box next to the bunk. When Russ impolitely gave the photo a good, long stare, the swashbuckling movie star reprimanded him: “I wish you’d quit ogling my wife!”
Not that Ty could do a lot about it. Russ was bigger and rougher. “Of course, what do you expect me to do, you damned big oaf?” Ty asked Russ with a grin.
The two laughed it off and became good friends. Power was an adroit fighter in the movies, but in real life, says Russ, he was a “small and frail” 5’10” — or, actually, small and frail compared to Russ. Russ was 6’3″ and 195 pounds, a lean, mean fighting machine who played football and boxed competitively prior to the Marine Corps. In the corps, he became a boxing champion.
Of course, Russ’s time in the military was hardly about movie stars and girls, a fact we addressed further into our conversation. He joined the military in 1942 at age 17. He had driven to downtown Pittsburgh to join the Navy, where sign-ups were taking place at the post office on Smithfield Street. “But the line was so damned long,” recalls Russ, with his usual verve, “all the way up the G– damned street.” An impatient sort then and still now, Russ bolted the long line and opted for the nearby Marine recruiting station instead, which wasn’t attracting nearly as many eager volunteers.
With that, Russ Post signed up to serve Uncle Sam. His discharge papers, which list his day of enlistment as December 10, 1942, describe him as blue-eyed, brown-haired, and “ruddy.” Seven decades later, only the hair has changed.
In short order, Russ was in Parris Island for basic training. Next was Camp Kearny in San Diego, Camp Eba in Hawaii, and, ultimately, the vast Pacific.
To capture the highlights of what Russ saw in the Pacific is too much for here, from his work supplying and evacuating troops from Iwo Jima and Okinawa to much more. But perhaps most searing was what he witnessed at Saipan. Some readers know of the horror there in the summer of 1944, as countless Japanese civilians killed themselves in mass suicides. Mothers hurled themselves and their babies into the sea rather than endure the ignominy of surrendering.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” says Russ today. “Horrible. People were jumping off the cliffs, women holding their children. I don’t care how damned tough you are, that makes your head scream. Anyone who has witnessed anything like that… that’s about as close to hell you can get.”
Russ estimates that the Japanese civilians were jumping 150-200 feet on to the jagged rocks and pounding water below: “Not a word from them, they’d just go. Jump. We had an interpreter shouting at them through a bullhorn, telling them to just give up, that we weren’t going to hurt them. But they had been told it wouldn’t be honorable to surrender. So, they were jumping in.”
For those few Americans who witnessed it, it was one of the most numbing moments of the entire war. Russ watched it.
Other than that trauma, Russ personally did not get injured during the war, though he did contract malaria. “Other than malaria, I haven’t had anything but a head cold since I was a kid,” he insists. He was a mine and booby-trap expert during the war, but managed to escape unscathed. Many of his comrades did not. “I saw a helluva a lot of people bleed to death,” he says.
He and his crew were thrilled when the atomic bomb was used in Japan. “I was in Okinawa at that time, getting ready for God knows what,” he says in reference to the Allied invasion of the Japanese mainland that mercifully never happened. “There was no remorse among any of us. We were thrilled. Hell, they’d [U.S. bombers] light the great city of Tokyo on fire [with conventional bombs], but those people just wouldn’t quit.”
The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at long last got the Japanese people to quit. And with that, Russ and his fellow soldiers were finally going home; in his case, home without a scratch.
Russ’s fortunes would change when he was called back just a few years later to fight in Korea, after a short interim as a student at Grove City College, which, for Russ, included some legendary escapades with the young women of the campus. He contends that one such episode prematurely hastened his rapid exit from the country. (I won’t go into the details.)
In Korea, Russ was put in charge of “a bunch of 17-and-18-year-old boys” in a flamethrower unit. One of the guys in his group was an African-American who had graduated from Howard University. Russ recalls the kid getting grief from some of the others, particularly the contingent of Mexican-American boys. “But he was exceptional,” says Russ, wishing he could remember his name.
It was in Korea that Russ got roughed up pretty good. As he explained how on this Saturday afternoon, he stood and without any shyness dropped his pants and showed my son and me his leg that had absorbed some shards of shrapnel. How did that happen? I asked him. He answered: “I lost a little hand grenade-throwing contest to a group of Chinamen,” Russ explained calmly. “It took a year to heal — and I’m a quick healer. Smelled like hell for a while. I was in a wheelchair for quite a while.”
He was also shot in the shoulder, another injury he eagerly showed us. This one should have led to his death. He marvels at the memory of the Chinese soldier standing over top of him ready to squeeze a bullet into his head, but for some reason never did. Did he think you were dead? I asked Russ. “I don’t know what the hell he thought,” Russ shrugged. “His officer called for him to get going and he just left. He let me go. Then our guys came and got me and put me on top of the hood of a jeep like a damned deer and drove me away.” Said Russ: “I suppose that’s why I got the Purple Heart. I never heard of anyone bitchin’ for not getting a second!”
John Russell Post was awarded the Purple Heart for his service in Korea. He showed us that and his other medals, humbly crammed inside a small, nondescript box that contained the few war papers and memorabilia he saved.
After a memorable Saturday afternoon at Russ’s home, my son and I had to go. We said goodbye to Russ, who bid us farewell with some more lively thoughts and choice language on everything from fatherhood and bass fishing and timber to the Old and New Testaments, some of which would shock the sensibilities of my conservative Christian brethren, especially his colorfully expressed skepticism of Noah’s Ark. Needless to say, his theological understanding of the New Testament and mine don’t quite match up. We’ll leave it at that.
As for now, this is the time of year when we mark Veterans Day, when we pay tribute to guys like Russ who won’t be around forever, and who are truly and literally a dying breed. This is when we need to seek them out and hear them out. I ask: Who’s the Russ Post on your street? Maybe it’s time to finally drop in on a Saturday afternoon and say hello.
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