'No Ordinary Joes' Tells Stories Of Love And War Bob Palmer, Chuck Vervalin, Tim McCoy and Gordy Cox were teenagers when the Japanese sank their submarine in World War II. No Ordinary Joes tells the story of their subsequent imprisonment, survival and loves.
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'No Ordinary Joes' Tells Stories Of Love And War

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'No Ordinary Joes' Tells Stories Of Love And War

'No Ordinary Joes' Tells Stories Of Love And War

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Bob Palmer, Chuck Vervalin, Tim McCoy, and Gordy Cox lived hard-scrabble lives growing up in the Depression. They joined the Navy and forged unbreakable bonds as crew members aboard USS Grenadier.

Their submarine sank after it was hit by a Japanese aerial torpedo. The entire crew survived, only to be taken prisoner, starved and tortured for almost three years in brutal Japanese prison camps.

The story of tragedy, courage and survival is told in Larry Colton's new book, "No Ordinary Joes," a book that at its core is really a love story.

If you served in war, what gave you the strength to endure that experience and sustain you after you got home? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, an update on the World Equestrian Games from health policy correspondent Julie Rovner. We'll explain.

But first, Larry Colton joins us from the studios of Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. LARRY COLTON (Author): Thanks Neal, it's a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And this story of these four men, you say at the end of the book that really what you set out to explore was what gives men the strength to endure, because some of their compatriots, some of their fellow prisoners, well, sort of gave up in the prison camp, and you can understand why.

Mr. COLTON: Yeah, it was sort of a mystery why some men made it and some men didn't, and because they all came from the austerity of the Depression. But the resolve within the survivors is something that is just almost unfathomable, how they were able to put up with what they had to endure.

CONAN: And just to there were so many debasements, so much punishment, standing at attention for four days straight and then punched randomly if you twitched. That was just one small thing.

Mr. COLTON: That's true, Neal. I heard about 100 different forms of torture in interviewing these men as they recounted, some of them, for the first time since it had happened, what had happened to them in these prison camps. And with each one of them, I was always amazed that what gave you the strength to endure.

And I'm not sure I really was able to come to any one conclusion, other than the fact that they were just simply very tough guys.

CONAN: It was clear, you wrote, it was clear that Tim McCoy was determined to stand up to the guards and be as big a pain in the ass as he could. Gordy Cox was going to make himself as invisible as possible and do whatever he could to avoid being noticed. Chuck Vervalin thought he'd be best served by never showing them pain, never looking weak. Bob Palmer's plan was to go inside his head and escape to a world where he was with Barbara again, Barbara the love of his life.

Mr. COLTON: Yeah, each of them devised their own survival techniques, and they were different. Tim McCoy, who was extremely brave, I would sort of say he was the Steve McQueen of the camp. He was in their face. He would stand up to them and be daring, and some of the maneuvers he would try in camp, and some of the defiance.

Whereas Gordy Cox would just sort of try to fly low under the radar as best you could. You couldn't completely. That was impossible. But I think a lot of them would just devise ways with inside their own head to go, to think about loved ones back home, or they would concoct meals that they would have. They would set out the menu, and this was all inside of their head.

CONAN: And it's interesting to hear their stories, read about their stories and the situations they found themselves in. They arrived after a period of imprisonment, their submarine was sunk in the Indian Ocean, and they went to various places, including Singapore.

But eventually they all end up in Japan, in prisoner of war labor camps. They're enlisted, so they were put to work. And there were people there who had been captured much earlier than they, at Wake Island and other places like that, and they could see them, as they deteriorated under these terrible conditions, begin to lose hope and lose whatever it is that makes men endure, and die.

Mr. COLTON: Yeah, they could look at these other people that had been there longer, and they would think that this is the future. And plus, they were on a day-to-day thing. They didn't know what was going to happen that afternoon. They didn't know if they were going to get beaten, if they were going to get taken out and shot. It was the mystery of not knowing, added to the tension that they were under, because there was no, you know, plan, you know, on Tuesday you'll go down to the garden and pick peas.

There wasn't any of that. It was just every day they woke up and didn't know, other than going to the labor camps, what was going to happen to them and what form or torture they would endure.

CONAN: And eventually, of course, they start hearing aircraft going overhead, United States bombers. They're working at steel plants, for example, that are very important to the Japanese, knowing they're going to be targets of their own bombs.

Mr. COLTON: I think they were as afraid of being killed by their own bombs as they were of the guards, because towards the end of the war, and when America had started to saturate the bombing with - on Japan, and they would talk to captured crewmen or other captured prisoners who had given them an update, and they were aware that there was this bombing going on.

And a lot of times they could hear the bombers or see the bombers, and that caused great concern that they were going to be killed by their own bombs.

CONAN: Then, of course, you'd like to think that there is a moment of glory at the end of the war, when they are finally liberated and march out to drums and cheers and tickertape parades.

Mr. COLTON: Well, that wasn't exactly the case because they had to go through some sort of debriefing. They went to Guam and stayed there. And by the time they came home, all the victory parades had all ceased to exist. And so it was like a month or two after the war.

And they were liberated. The only reason they were freed was because of the atomic bomb and because and if they had if America had to have invaded Japan, it was pretty certain that these guys would've been executed.

So when they came home, it wasn't the hero's welcome that so many of the other soldiers came to, because that had already this is six weeks after the war by the time they got home.

CONAN: We'd like to hear from members of our audience who've been in war. What helped you to endure that situation and also to endure the situation after you got home? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

And I have to ask, the situation when these four men, your subjects, returned home, you'd like to think it was a happy ending, and in some cases, well, they all had difficulties.

Mr. COLTON: Exactly. They came home to different because the Japanese had not signed the Geneva Convention, they weren't obligated under their rules to report prisoners of war, and so the families of these men were reported lost at sea. So the families of the crew members of the Grenadier all thought that they were dead.

So in many cases the wives or the girlfriends had moved on because this was three years later, and they had taken up with other men. And so these guys, when they came home, thought they were going to be reunited with the women that they loved, when in fact that didn't happen, and that compounded the pain that they had been through.

CONAN: Did they get counseling for what we would now call PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder?

Mr. COLTON: Not really. That term wasn't even coined until 1985, well after the Vietnam War. And so there was a minimal of counseling. Most of it was just physically checking them out.

And so when they didn't sit around in group therapy or any of that. And so they just went on about their lives and the rebuilding of their lives and the rebuilding of America after the war.

And for the most part they stuffed those feelings, and they certainly did have post-traumatic stress, but they stuffed them inside, whereas today's veterans come back and we're aware of it, not that we can necessarily deal with it properly, but we at least know to look for it.

And these cases, it was all part of that generation just being tough guys and just go on with your life. Don't whine about it.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. Andy's(ph) on the line, calling from San Antonio.

ANDY (Caller): Yes, sir. About 12 years ago I was held prisoner in Latin America for eight months. And having been in the military before that, during the Vietnam era, I was familiar with how the people in North Vietnam, the prisoners there, the prisoners in Korea and those in the Japanese camps, were able to cope. And it was my light at the end of the tunnel.

CONAN: Knowing that there were people who'd been through things that were at least just as bad, maybe worse than yours?

ANDY: Oh, what I had compared to theirs was a walk in the park. I mean, I got knocked around and, you know, beaten up a little bit and thrown into solitary confinement when I insulted the wrong people.

But, you know, the only problem was, was the sanitation conditions. I picked up an infection and it took seven years to get rid of.

CONAN: It's funny, Larry Colton, you tell a story of one of your subjects who before he went to bed every night took a shower because he hadn't been able to take a shower for, what, two years.

Mr. COLTON: Right, this was after he got released, where sanitation and cleanliness became, you know, so important to him because he lived, you know, in filth for so long and wasn't allowed to take a shower.

Or when they did, they would go into a sort of a bathtub that was shared by like 1,000 other prisoners, all of been - some of whom had been working in the coal mine, and there would two inches thick of soot and grime on the top of the bath. Most of the guys wouldn't even take it because they'd come out dirtier than when they went in.

CONAN: Andy, was there a moment, even a moment, where despair seemed to overtake you?

ANDY: Yeah, there was I was in contact with my family, and they were extremely discouraged. And that got me very depressed.

But to get back to what you were just talking about, the first thing I did when I got out was to take a four-hour shower, until the hot water ran out. I just wanted to wash that place off of me.

CONAN: And did you have to be careful about how much you ate?

ANDY: No - I was able to prepare my own food. The prison food would definitely make you sick, but I had enough money that I could purchase what I needed.

And like I said, I had been in the military and was prepared to be a prisoner. I had worked in military intelligence, and after the Pueblo, anybody who was in intelligence, they really grilled us to - what to do and what not to do if ever taken prisoner.

CONAN: The Pueblo, of course, a U.S. intelligence ship that was captured by the North Koreans.

Mr. COLTON: Which is that's quite a difference in World War II with these submariners. They had received no training, none whatsoever, on what to do if captured.

So it sounds like you were given much more preparation for this because these guys had no training, and not only that, the fact that most of them were 19, 20 years old when this happened.

CONAN: Andy, thanks very much for the call, good luck to you.

ANDY: Thank you, bye-bye.

CONAN: We're talking with Larry Colton. His book is called "No Ordinary Joes." We want to hear from you. If you've served in a war, what gave you the strength to endure that experience and sustain you after you got home? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking with author Larry Colton. His new book is "No Ordinary Joes: The Extraordinary True Story of Four Submariners in War and Love and Life." There's an excerpt from the book at our website. You can read about the attack on the USS Grenadier that made Bob Palmer a prisoner of war in an excerpt at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Larry Colton, you'd mentioned earlier that when these men came home, their loved ones thought that they'd been dead. The women that they loved had been, many of them had gone off with other men. Barbara, Bob Palmer's beloved, was among them, and that is, in a way, the spine of your story, their relationship over the years.

Mr. COLTON: Well, their relationship is what first attracted me to the story. I'm not a historian or a World War II buff. But I was what caught my eye was the love story between these two, which was what I thought was phenomenal - the fact that when he came back they got married just two days after the war or three days.

And then he went off to war, and then his ship was sunk, and so when she believed all along that he was dead, she moved on. And it wasn't 'til after the war that he sent a telegram saying that he was alive and coming home.

But she was already with somebody else, and it caused tremendous conflict because of the love that she now had for both of these guys. And so how that played out over the years was just an incredible story.

CONAN: Eventually, they get back together. It's a remarkable story. Yet, we can't ignore the fact that all of these men also have problems with alcohol. All of them have very difficult relationships with their sons.

Mr. COLTON: Right, and I think that goes, speaks to the post-traumatic stress. I mean, post-traumatic stress not only affects the people who have been in the war or however they get it, but it affects their families too because as these men have nightmares or whatever it is, whatever their symptoms are, the families have to deal with it.

And so because we didn't have the coping mechanisms or the treatment that we have today, so many of these men did the best they could, and part of that involved alcohol. And of course, that led to other problems and not that that still doesn't happen today, but it just went undiagnosed back them.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Jim's(ph) on the line, calling from Concord, Ohio.

JIM (Caller): Oh, hi there. I just wanted to relate. I was in Vietnam '69 to '70, way up north on a hilltop, living in holes in the ground. And my wife was pregnant when I left. We didn't know that.

But anyway, when I came home, as we left Fort Lewis in Seattle on a commercial plane, after we were airborne, the pilot came over the intercom system and said: Ladies and gentlemen, we are very privileged today to have two returning Vietnam veterans onboard with us. And everybody clapped. And they served us free drinks. So that's a little bit of a departure from people spitting on Vietnam veterans.

CONAN: It is. There was an interesting I happened to be flying out of BWI Airport a couple of weeks ago, and there was a committee of people greeting a group of veterans who served in the Second World War, older people and their families, coming to Washington.

They were not they stayed overseas, patrolling various places. They didn't get to go to any other parades, and they were coming to, as a group, visit the memorials in Washington, D.C. And they asked all of us at the airport to stand up and cheer for them when they came home, to be the victory parade that they never got. It was a pretty moving moment to see them there.

JIM: It must have made them feel good. I must say that after I got home, however, and what occurred in '75 when we left there, I did not speak of Vietnam to anybody. I sold my medals and uniforms in a garage sale.

And it was many years before I spoke about it. So to all those veterans out there who had the terrible experiences, hopefully they can find a little bit of enjoyment in the little, nice experience that I had.

CONAN: Jim, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

JIM: Take care.

CONAN: Your men, Larry Colton, they didn't talk about it, either -pretty much until they talked to you.

Mr. COLTON: No. Most of them for the most part did not because as one of them said, when I talk about it, people just shriek in horror if you tell the reality of what really happened and the horror of it, that nobody wants to hear that. They just can't believe that man would treat fellow man in that manner.

And so they just went inside, including with their families, and the sons and daughters of many of these men didn't really know what they knew they had been in the war, but they didn't know the extent of what it was.

But while the book certainly focuses on the war and the submarine sinking and then the treatment in the prison camp, it's also about the people involved. In fact, it's more about to me, it's more about the people that are involved and the characters and the strength of their own character and surviving such a thing and in the relationships with the women, which they eventually were able to carve out successful relationships.

CONAN: Let's go to William(ph). William's with us from Jacksonville, North Carolina.

WILLIAM (Caller): Yes, how's it going. I love your show, Neal.

CONAN: Thank you.

WILLIAM: I just wanted to comment. I'm a 27-year-old excuse me, a 27-year Marine Corps veteran. And I served Al Asad with the intel battalion. And how I pretty much dealt with it was very simple. I kept my home life out of my mind. What the dog was doing, what the kids are doing, soccer, dance, all that stuff, I kept that out of my mind.

My primary focus was getting my Marine home alive. Everything else and my wife attests to you, I would go four, five, six months without even talking to her. So I pretty much dealt with the stresses by keeping my mind where I was at.

CONAN: There's a wonderful book by Jacobo Timerman called "Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number," in which he describes his experience being held in Argentina during The Dirty War. And he said he would never look at the pictures of his family because he knew it would make it impossible for him to get anything but overwhelmed emotionally. It sounds like you had a similar experience, William.

WILLIAM: Absolutely, absolutely. Now, when I came home, I did have issues with readjusting to the family because I had missed out on so much. However, once again, as a Marine, I just learned to deal with what was on my plate at that particular moment in my life.

It took me some time to get readjusted, but after about maybe six, seven, eight months of being back home and knowing that I was getting ready to retire, it made it all that much easier for me to say okay, what happened over there stayed over there. I'm home. Now I've got to worry about this one graduating high school, how am I going to pay for this one for college, my retirement's coming up.

You know, I was able to focus on what I had here once I left there, but I did take a little bit of time to transition, and that was very hard for me. I'm lucky the Marin Corps has got a Family Wellness Center that was actually helping me cope with the stresses of war and trying to put them behind me so I can move on with my life.

CONAN: William, thanks very much for the call, and thanks for your service.

WILLIAM: Thank you very much. Have a good day.

CONAN: Let's go next to Lauren(ph). Lauren's with us from Sacramento.

LAUREN (Caller): Hi, this is Lauren, and I just wanted to say that coping over there was a lot easier finding one person within the military intelligence battalion I was with to bond with, that I could be a human being with and not just a soldier.

Also, I'm not religious, so I didn't go to chaplains, but there were actually psychologists in Iraq. I was there 2003 and 2004, and I would do check-ins with him.

Now, I think just about everybody who came back could've claimed post-traumatic stress disorder from what they've been through, and I chose not to, even though I was able to check the boxes, because I felt that it would be a way to close doors to different opportunities in life and that, you know, if anything were ever to go wrong in my relationship, which I did, I almost got divorced when I got back, but I was able to keep my relationship going.

So, you know, I still have nightmares, but, you know, I just keep on doing what my life was meant to be about.

CONAN: And you're worried about the stigma, if you were identified as somebody who admitted to...?

LAUREN: Well, absolutely. If I you know, I was just about to get pregnant when I got deployed, and I chose not to because I figured I would label myself a coward for the rest of my life, even if it weren't the case.

You know, so when I got back, now I'm still trying to make that happen, and if it were to happen, and then if anything were ever to go wrong with my relationship, can you imagine if I had the label of, you know, PTSD for my husband to throw around in court to get custody?

Oh, well, you know, she's going to have flashbacks, or she's going to, you know you see what I'm saying?

CONAN: I hear what you're saying. It just seems if you need the help, you should be able to get it, and there should be no, you know, penalties for that.

LAUREN: Well, I just think that it would weaken my case in any future endeavors if someone chose to throw it at me, so...

CONAN: Oh, I understand, Lauren, I understand.

Mr. COLTON: Neal, I think it interesting that in the case of one of the men, his son had served in Vietnam, and he wrote him a letter saying that he the son wrote a letter saying that he was going to apply for...

interesting that in the case of one of the men, his son had served in Vietnam and he wrote him a letter saying that he - the son wrote a letter saying that when he - he was going to apply for post traumatic stress disability. And the father wrote him back saying, why is it only you Vietnam crybabies are doing that? From World War II, we just came back and went about and built our lives. And it was sort of a denial that it happened and - when, in fact, it did happen.

CONAN: Lauren, good luck. Thank you.

LAUREN: Well, I wanted to say one more thing, if I may.

CONAN: Sure. Go ahead.

LAUREN: About writing home or being in touch with home, I found that whenever I tried to write a letter by hand that I would get emotional. But because we had Internet available to us, we had a lot of really smart people in MI...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LAUREN: Writing emails was - I was able to be more professional with my family.

CONAN: Didn't show the shaky handwriting, yeah.

LAUREN: Yeah. So, anyway, that's it. Thank you.

CONAN: Okay, Lauren. Thanks very much.


CONAN: I wanted to ask you, Larry Colton, about one of the crew members of USS Grenadier, the man who was a part more than anybody else, the one African-American aboard the ship. This is a man named Thomas Trigg(ph), or at least that's the name you use in the book.

Mr. COLTON: Right. You know, the Navy was basically segregated back in those days. And people of color could only serve as a cook or a steward. And so they were really second-class citizens within their own ship. And there was just out and out really racism toward these men. And he suffered - not only was he fighting the enemy, the Japanese, but he was fighting the enemy from within on that ship.

And he - when I started my research, he was already - had already passed away, and I would've liked to been able to use him more, but he wasn't available. But I think that there was so much discrimination that went on in the service back in those days, and maybe even more in the navy and in the submarine service. And I just found it - I don't know how he possibly endured.

CONAN: You also write that there was contradictions about these men. Yes, you admired them greatly. You wondered how they endured. Yet, as you suggest, they were hardly perfect human beings themselves.

Mr. COLTON: Well, they come from what is, quote, unquote, "the greatest generation." And, certainly, they did some amazing things in surviving the Depression, fighting a truly evil enemy, and then helping to rebuild America. But they also perhaps are one of, if not the most, racist and xenophobic. And I think that's also very much product of the times.

I mean, we sometimes describe current day values and political correctness back to 1940, when that just didn't exist back then. And we think, well, I wouldn't have made that decision today if - or I wouldn't have made that decision, but yet we're putting our values now onto that. And so it was a difficult world.

And I - my own father was from that generation and he had some of those same characteristics. Although he was a wonderful man, I would sometimes shudder at some of the things he would say. And it wasn't out of malice. It was just that it was institutionalized.

CONAN: We're talking with Larry Colton about his book, "No Ordinary Joes." Goes on sale today.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get Pamela(ph) on. Pamela with us from Tucson.

PAMELA (Caller): Hello. I'm calling right when I'm in a vehicle emissions check. Thank you so much for taking my call. My father served in World War II and was a Japanese prisoner of war for four years and survived the Bataan Death March and many horrors. I called primarily not to share so much what it was that he was one of the fortunate who survived, but his observations of those who did not survive.

CONAN: And what was that?

PAMELA: He's found that his fellow soldiers, those that would give themselves a particular time limit - I will be home by Christmas, the war will be done in one year - those who gave themselves a timeframe, and then that time would come and pass and they would still be prisoners would tend to give up and lose hope.

CONAN: And he just lived...

PAMELA: Those that endured - you know the expression, this too shall pass?

CONAN: Uh-huh.

PAMELA: Those who were a little more philosophical and knew that nothing lasts forever, and one way or the other you'll be released from this, those were the men who tended to survive.

CONAN: Pamela, we'll let you get on with your vehicle inspection.

PAMELA: Thank you so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And let's see if we can get to Charlie(ph), Charlie with us from Wichita.

CHARLIE (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to point out - I heard the billboard and thought, well, they're never going to talk about World War II submarines ever again on this show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Hold on.

CHARLIE: But I just wanted to point out that there are - there were 52 submarines sunk during World War II of the U.S. Navy. And there is a memorial in each of the United States to one of those. And they're very simple. They're just a plain granite upright listing the missing crew and detailing what they did in the war and how they were lost.

And since there are two extras, there's an extra one in California and an extra one in New York State. And I just wondered where - if you knew where the Grenadier's monument was located.

Mr. COLTON: I'm not aware. I do not know that. I should, but I don't.

CHARLIE: Well, there's in each state. We have one here in Wichita in our memorial park along the river. Very simple.

CONAN: Charlie, I get the chance to go around the sea wall at the Naval Academy in Annapolis on a regular basis, and there's a monument there. It's a torpedo from World War II, one of the ones that worked toward the end of the war and not one of the ones that didn't work at the beginning of the war, a terrible, terrible scandal.


CONAN: And its got a listing of all the submarines lost, still on patrol, I think as you put it.

CHARLIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Charlie, thanks very much for the phone call.

CHARLIE: You bet. Bye.

CONAN: And Larry Colton, we want to thank you so much for your time today. We wanted to end with this email, though, that we got from Chris(ph) in California. Serving there during the first year of Iraqi freedom in a combat unit, what sustained me was just wanting to stay alive. As every day goes by, I find myself dealing with that experience less and less well.

So the experiences of your four sailors are still alive in the experiences of U.S. veterans today. Thank you very much. Appreciate your time.

Mr. COLTON: Well, thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: The book is "No Ordinary Joes." Larry Colton joined us from the studios of Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland. "No Ordinary Joes: The Extraordinary True Story of Four Submariners In War And Love And Life."

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