MY DEFINITION OF A HERO

By Byron D. Varner, CDR, U.S. Navy (RET)

Several years ago I wrote the following article to honor a life-long friend who survived being a POW of the Japanese during WWII. With the need for appreciation of our military patriots and our president and nation in our struggle against the terrorists of the world, I am reprinting this article for those of you who want to know the true meaning of the word “hero.” Fortunately, we have plenty of new ones proving themselves everyday:

I can understand our youth being caught up in hero worship of sports and movie stars, but it seems strange to me when adults make heroes out of these overpaid sports figures and decadent show business personalities. The truly great Americans, those who daily perform wonderful things for their neighbors, communities, and humanity in general, must not appeal to this materially minded segment of our population.

As one who grew up in the hard times of the 1930s depression years and went to war in the 1940s, 50’s and 60s, I would like to tell you about a different kind of hero. His name is Charles (Tim) McCoy.

Quitting high school soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II, McCoy enlisted in the submarine service at age 17. Men were needed badly to build up our rapidly depleted forces early in that war, and recruiters were a bit loose on minimum age requirements — if a kid knew how to get around the rules.

In a few months Tim was a seasoned crewmember on the submarine USS Grenadier. They called him “Skeeter,” at first, because of his diminutive size and his busy habit of being everywhere at once. Like many young teenagers, he hadn’t attained his full growth, but he soon added several inches height and gained weight on Navy chow. Eventually his Navy nickname became “Tim,” after the cowboy movie star of that era.

In April 1943, the Grenadier was on patrol from Singapore to Rangoon, when Japanese bombers scored a direct hit on the sub and all hands had to abandon ship. A Japanese Corvette picked them up and delivered them to Padang, where enemy officials subjected them to four months of day and night physical and mental torture, then shipped them like animals to Singapore.

Placed in a camp there, the Japanese continued the awful torture for two more months before putting the POWs on board the Asama Maru. Crowded down into a poorly vented hold, with little food or water and no toilet facilities or medical attention, the rough voyage became a 12-day journey of misery and despair. Beatings and deprivation continued until they reached the southern island of Japan. Tim’s unit went to a POW camp near Fukuoka, Japan.

The Japanese did not recognize the terms of the Geneva Convention for POWs. Instead, they provided scant food rations that barely sustained life, and withheld Red Cross relief packages from their captives. Thus, constant hunger made food uppermost in the thought of every prisoner.

Of his many incredible experiences, one that typifies Japanese cruelty was the time Tim was crucified. This incident occurred in winter, when his work assignment was unloading soft cargo from ships. The large, loosely woven bags contained soybeans and other raw foods. This large weave gave him an idea of how to sneak some of this fresh “manna from Heaven” back to share with his group.

Somehow he located a small piece of hollow bamboo and made an angular cut at one end. This would be his “retriever.” Then he took a pair of tattered navy dungarees, tied a knot at the bottom of each pant leg, and laid the denim pants over his shoulders. This would be his “receptacle” for the loot. He hid both objects underneath his thin Japanese issue quilted cotton jacket, and passed through the work gate unnoticed by the guards.

Hoisting each bag of soybeans to his shoulders, he would turn away to shield his face from view of the guards on the dock. When he felt it safe to do so, he daringly jabbed the bamboo through the woven sack, sucked soybeans into his makeshift bamboo siphon, and forcefully blew them into the knotted pant legs. It was a slow, cautious effort in the course of lifting many bags, to make sure the guards did not catch him in the process of this risky operation.

Unfortunately, he got greedy. When the bean-filled legs expanded the jacket, he did not realize he looked a bit too plump to be a half-starved POW. Suspicious guards searched him when he tried to pass through the gate upon his return to camp.

The brutal reward for McCoy’s efforts was another terrible beating and lashing him to a tall “cross” for three days and nights — above a sign that read: “Bean Thief” — for all passing POWs to see what Japanese “justice” could be for those who broke the rules.

With all the cruel and inhumane treatment suffered throughout his internment, Tim never gave the enemy the satisfaction of any answer other than his name, rank, and serial number. Knowing his iron will and resolve as I do since our childhood days in Texas, I feel certain the enemy could have beaten him to death and he never would have told them more.

Liberation finally came, after some two and one-half years, and he arrived at the San Diego Naval Hospital for treatment and rehabilitation. He was gaunt and in bad physical condition, yet in surprisingly good spirits, busily formulating a plan to build his body back to normal. For one who had never been much of an athlete before he joined the Navy, Tim’s plan was rather unusual, to say the least.

During that war, every major military installation had a service football team made up of former college and professional players. Some were physical training instructors and others were there temporarily while undergoing war training. These were the best teams in the nation, with a never-ending supply of good talent available from college and pro players leaving school to serve their country.

The Pacific Submarine Command team was the one McCoy selected to workout with, once he gained some weight and felt strong enough. The hard work not only improved his body, he actually made the team — and in the process, became one of their better players.

Considering the ordeal of surviving a POW camp, nothing seemed impossible to him, if he wanted to attempt it. But he never talked much about his POW experience, trying as best he could to put that behind him and, as he liked to say, “go ever onward and upward.”

Years later, after he had become successful in business, I had occasion to be his guest at a national reunion of submarine veterans in San Antonio. There, I met several of his surviving Grenadier POW shipmates. It was an emotional and heart-rending reunion. Even at this late stage of their lives, some had never fully recovered from the war experience, and had terrible recurring dreams about it. Few had successful civilian lives.
Afterwards, I asked Tim, “How did you manage to find peace of mind and get back to normal after such a harrowing experience?”

He paused a long moment before saying words to this effect: “As much hate and resentment as I had built against those people, I knew I had to do something or I would never get over it. I prayed a lot about it. Most of the Japanese were extremely cruel to me, but a few actually tried to help me, despite risking serious punishment by their superiors if caught. This was especially true in one of the factories where I worked for some time. To some extent, they, too, were victims of the war.”

Then he made a statement of discovery that others obviously had not been able to discern: “Searching my soul, I came to realize that to forgive is to set the prisoner free, and that all the hate I had for these people could only make me a prisoner of my own thought. So, I forgave them. I simply forgave them, put it all behind me as best I could, and got on with my life.”

And that is exactly what he did. He completed a Navy career from seaman to commissioned officer, and went on to a productive and financially rewarding civilian career as an insurance executive.

Still active and in his late 70s, Tim maintains a positive outlook on life, a desire to do good things for others, and a “never say die” spirit that kept him alive during the worst moments of his younger life. He has given a small fortune to his church and other charities.

Since turning his business over to his son Timothy, he spends a lot of his time as a motivational speaker. And, if anyone could motivate you, it would be Tim McCoy.

In my humble concept of an American hero, Tim is “the real McCoy,” and I am proud that he calls me his life-long friend.