Roxanne McKnight with The Meteor
"Don't call me a hero. I'm not a hero; I'm a survivor. The men we buried - those are the heroes."
Those are the words of Ross Garrett, 89, of Madisonville. He and the eight crewmembers of his B24 were shot down over Japanese-controlled Burma on May 1, 1943 in the throes of World War II. Of the nine crewmembers, only three made it back home.
Garrett was born in Nacogdoches May 30, 1919, and grew up in Rusk County.
"I'm an East Texas Piney Woods boy," he said recently. "Madisonville is the farthest west I've ever lived."
Soon after Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941, Garrett joined the Air Force. He became a pilot and flew 17 missions. He had married his sweetheart, Thelma, before he joined the military. On the day his plane was shot down, his first child, Sharon, was born.
"People wrote letters back then," he said. "There were no cell phones. You didn't know what was going on until a long time after."
On that fateful day, his plane took enemy fire and became riddled with bullet holes. His pilot, Jack Kavanaugh, managed a wheels-up landing in a rice paddy. Several of the men were injured by enemy fire as the plane went down. Joseph Kellner died almost immediately of severe abdominal wounds. John Lavery was shot in the head and also died soon after the crash.
One of Edward Bodell's arms was severed by bullet fire, and he was left in a village with a man to care for him. The other six were marched to a prison camp in Rangoon. Morman Dohn was shot and killed on the way, leaving five.
Garrett said Dohn was the type to have told his captors exactly what he thought. He figures that is what happened to get Dohn killed.
Besides Garrett, there were Kavanaugh, co-pilot Walter Cotton, navigator Kenneth Moxley and Jack Redmon. Redmon tried to escape while on the march and was shot and killed, leaving four. The remaining men were put in a prison camp with other prisoners of war, where they spent the next two years under severely trying conditions. After some weeks, they heard that Bodell, the man whose arm had been shot off, had died.
The man in charge of the camp was a short Japanese man the Americans called Tarzan - not to his face, of course.
Tarzan would take Garrett out of his cell and force him to hold a small table in his outstretched arms while he beat Garrett about the head and body with a short, steel 1-inch pipe.
The prisoners spent time in solitary confinement. All the prisoners were denied medical treatment and were given little food. What food they received was unappetizing and unhealthy. If they got back too late from their beatings, they might not get anything at all. Garrett lost almost a third of his body weight, shrinking from 160 to 110.
Besides the torture of regular beatings, sanitary conditions were horrendous, and many of the men developed bloody dysentery. Seeing his men so mistreated took a mental toll on Kavanaugh, who eventually gave up the will to live. Shortly after that, he died. The remaining three men were liberated in 1945 at the end of the war.
Garrett attributes his survival to being mentally tough and combat ready.
Although 63 years have passed since he was freed from captivity, Garrett keeps alive the memory of his crew. He treasures a group photo taken of him and his crewmembers before the crash. On the back of the photo, he has taped a slip of paper on which he has written each of their names. As evidence of his constant thoughts of them, he can tell what each of his crewmembers was like, what happened to them and how they died.
There were many other American and British soldiers in the prison camp as well. Kavanaugh, as pilot, had performed the burial service of many. After he died, Cotton, the co-pilot, should have taken over the duty, but he asked Garrett if he would perform them instead. Consequently, Garrett buried several American and British soldiers.
One of the dead British soldiers had a New Testament that Garrett used for his burial and ended up keeping to use for other funerals. He still has it to this day, framed behind glass.
After he returned to the United States, Garrett finished his college degree in agriculture. He taught other veterans for a while and eventually became the assistant extension agent in Cherokee County. When the full time position of extension agent in Madison County arose, he moved to Madisonville, where he has lived ever since.
As extension agent from 1953 through the mid-1980s, Garrett helped farmers, ranchers and dairymen, as there were several dairies in Madison County at that time. He also taught the youth how to judge dairy products and land. He and Thelma had three more children.
After his retirement, Garrett ran a few cattle. Now, at 89, he and wife Thelma, blind and bedridden, stay home and have family to help them around the house.
He is the last of the crew still alive, but they live on in his memory: pilot Jack Kavanaugh, who couldn't stand to see his men treated so badly; co-pilot Walter Cotton, who passed on his burial duties to Garrett and eventually came home; Kenneth Moxley, the navigator, who also came home; Edward Bodell, whose arm was severed and stayed in a village to be cared for, but died there; Joseph Kellner and John Lavery, who were hit by enemy fire during the initial crash and died almost immediately; Morman Dohn, whose hot temper may have gotten him killed; and Jack Redmon, who was killed trying to escape. They are gone, but they live on as long as Ross Garrett can tell their story.