U.S. Marine Corps Korean War Montgomery, IL Flight date: 08/09/17
By Marty Zack, Honor Flight Chicago Veteran Interviews Volunteer
Jess Holcomb, who was wounded three times in Korea and is the recipient of three Purple Hearts, is steadfast in his belief that if he hadn’t gone into the Marines, he wouldn’t be here today. “I always wanted to be a Marine” he declared. Direction and leadership were needed in his life, and at age 17 he enlisted as an inactive reserve in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After helping to form a military police company there, he reached enlistment age in 1950. He went to Parris Island, South Carolina for boot camp which he loved, well not every part, but the whole experience helped him think differently about how the world was run. After being told that he would never make it through, he responded with, “Well, we’ll see, won’t we?” He did make it, then shipped out to California for more training, and eventually left there on a Med Cruise. (Navy term for a one stop deployment to your assignment)
Unexpectedly, the ship was ordered to turn around. The only information given to the Marines on board was that they were being taken to a “beautiful country”. After seven days on an attack carrier, traveling through the Philippine Sea, they arrived in Japan. There they boarded a landing ship which took them to Korea and into the chaos of the invasion. When they got topside the next morning, they saw many ships also making landings. One of them nearby was the USS Missouri battleship. Jess then witnessed the tremendous velocity of all guns firing broadside; the memory of that roaring introduction to the Korean War still gives him goose bumps today.
Jess was part of the second landing near Inchon. An impressively big master sergeant soon appeared before all the new recruits, most just kids, and explained that he wanted them to see something, and then he wanted them to think of something. With that, he led them by a large area where the ground was covered with foreboding body bags. The sergeant then said that when they are ordered to keep their heads down, this is why. Jess suddenly felt he was no longer a 17 year old boy and understood he was facing the unmistakable reality of war.
Arriving in Korea with only summer gear left him unprepared for the brutal cold weather. After a while the warmth of Mickey Mouse boots, long underwear, and long coats came to his rescue. To heat their food, C-rations were pushed into the exhaust pipes of the few tanks that would start.
After involvement in many conflicts as a platoon sergeant, Jess felt as if he had walked over the length and width of every hill in Korea. Sometimes during battle as he saw men dropping around him, he questioned why he was there. But then his training from boot camp kicked in automatically, and he carried on. One dark night in the midst of exploding grenades, he was hit. His first thought was, “How the hell did they see me?” After a recovery period, he returned to the fighting only to be wounded a second time. Hoping to be sent home from the naval hospital in Japan, he was told he would be returned again to the conflict. Shortly afterwards he was wounded a third time. A land mine was tripped. When it blew up, he came down totally disoriented and started running, unaware that he had only been left with his boots on and his rifle still slung over his shoulder. While others had been killed in the blast, he discovered later that the Bible he always carried over his heart had saved him. This pocket- sized life saver with the pierced path of deadly shrapnel traveling through its pages is still proudly in his possession.
Jess stayed in the Marine reserves until 1972. Today he feels once you’re a Marine, you’re always a Marine. Being a Marine gave direction to the life Jess would lead. Along with training FBI agents at Quantico Marine Base while still in active service, he was a fire captain, EMR, and ran for sheriff while living in Mississippi. After graduating from the police academy at NIU, he became an officer in Plano, Illinois. He now belongs to a very active Marine Corps league near his home in Montgomery.
His endearing story about meeting his wife, Jane, who worked for the Navy Department, ended with, “I tell people I won her in a poker game.” They’ve been married 67 years. His devoted family includes a grandson, a Marine aviator who has served three tours in Iraq.
Jess is very proud to have been chosen to be part of the 80th flight for Honor Flight Chicago. We proudly thank you, Jess, for your service and wish you an exceptionally wonderful time on your journey to Washington, D.C.