How Men Survive War’s Brutal Effects

Posted October 8, 2010 at 5:31pm

It’s April 1943, and war rages in the Pacific Ocean theater. The U.S. Navy’s submarine fleet is hard at work keeping Japanese forces at bay.

The Australia-based USS Grenadier is among the submarines that are deep in enemy territory, hunting for Japanese vessels between Thailand and Malaysia. A brief trip to the surface one morning leads to the sub being spotted and attacked by the Japanese. The Grenadier suffers irreparable damage, and the crew is forced to abandon ship, surrendering to the Japanese.

Crew members are then sent to prison camps in Japan, where they remain for three years.

Larry Colton’s new book, ‘No Ordinary Joes: The Extraordinary True Story of Four Submariners in War and Love and Life,’ tells the stories of four members of the Grenadier’s crew ‘ Bob Palmer, Gordy Cox, Tim McCoy and Chuck Vervalin ‘ during that harrowing experience and how it affected the rest of their lives.

With its promise of ‘three hots and a cot,’ the Navy looked like an escape from the hardships that Palmer, Cox, McCoy and Vervalin experienced growing up during the Great Depression, but their experiences were not what they bargained for.

Japan had not signed the Geneva Convention, so it did not notify the U.S. of the Grenadier’s capture, leading the Navy and the families at home to believe the men had been lost at sea. While the crew members were subjected to torture, starvation, disease and slave labor, their significant others began seeing other men, thinking the Grenadier crew would never return. Meanwhile, the thought of having someone waiting for them at home gave many of the men the will to survive the ordeal.

Colton spent nearly a decade researching and writing the book, making trips all over the country to visit the remaining Grenadier veterans and hear their stories, eventually narrowing his focus down to four men. He said it was the effect that the crew’s prisoner-of-war experience had on their personal lives that made him want to write the book.

‘When these guys were captured they were just 19 or 20 years old,’ Colton said. ‘They had their youth snatched out from underneath them. They weren’t even old enough to vote.’ (The voting age was 21 at the time.)

He said the book was originally going to be about just Palmer, who married his wife, Barbara, right before he left for war. She became involved with another man while Palmer was a POW, but she eventually left that man to remarry Palmer years later.

Colton decided to include more stories in the book when he learned some of Palmer’s crewmates had experienced similar post-war struggles in their personal lives. Although there was not a term for it at the time, all of the men suffered textbook cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Even when Colton had settled on the four men he focuses on in the book, generational norms made getting them to tell their stories no easy task.

‘They hadn’t talked about their war experiences,’ Colton said. ‘For one thing, it was so brutal nobody wants to hear it. They’re not into introspection.’

Despite that, Colton has managed to provide a heartfelt and detailed narrative of what happened to the four men. He doesn’t shy away from the horrors that Palmer, Cox, McCoy and Vervalin experienced as POWs, from bedbug-infested barracks to debilitating disease. It isn’t always easy to read, but the gritty details are essential to their story.

The book provides a picture of WWII that goes beyond the winners and losers of military action. It shows that survivors of the most horrific war experiences carry those experiences forever. ‘I think that these people are portrayed as heroes, although flawed heroes,’ Colton said. ‘You see them warts and all. Maybe they wouldn’t want some of the warts in the book, but … the book is meant to pay tribute to these guys.’

Without question, it pays a stirring tribute.