Jackson Countians know why the Jefferson bypass on U.S. 129 south of Gainesville is named for Major Damon J. Gause. Many others, even in neighboring counties, might not know that he was a World War II hero, whose remarkable story about multiple escapes from the Japanese will be told in a Public Broadcasting documentary next year.
Actually, there are stories within his story.
Gause, whose nickname was “Rocky,” joined the Army Air Corps in 1938 and became a P-40 fighter pilot. After marrying Ruth Evans, who, as did Gause, had attended Martin Institute in Jefferson, he was stationed in the Philippines when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. He volunteered to drive a load of food to Bataan, where thousands of American and Filipino troops were being held by Japanese.
Gause had to abandon the truck, jumping into a river to escape, but was captured. He stole his Japanese guard’s bayonet, stabbed him and ran for a nearby beach. He set out in an abandoned lifeboat for Corregidor, but had to swim most of the 3 miles after it sank. Gause passed out, and when he woke up 36 hours later, a familiar face was looking down on him – a classmate from Martin Institute in Jefferson, Army Nurse Mildred “Millie” Dalton.
Dalton nursed him back to health as the Japanese threatened Corregidor, where she and several other nurses continued to treat the wounded. Gause and a Filipino soldier left for the mainland in an old outrigger canoe. Under constant enemy fire, the Filipino was killed, and Gause had to swim for his life.
He remained hidden by friendly Filipinos on the islands until August 1942 when he and another U.S. Army officer, W.L. Osborne, repaired a dilapidated 20-foot boat and set out on a harrowing, two-month, 3,200-mile voyage to the safety of Australia. Gen. Douglas MacArthur presented both with the Distinguished Service Cross.
When Gause returned to Jefferson as a captain in November 1942, his hometown gave him a hero’s welcome. He served at a Virginia air base until being assigned to England in December 1943 to fly escort for bombing raids over Germany.
Though he had survived several narrow escapes during the war, in March 1944, Gause died when a plane he was testing crashed near London.
Millie Dalton, the nurse who was Gause’s high school classmate, was confined to a Japanese internment camp in Manila until she and others were liberated in February 1944. She and fellow nurses became known as the “Angels of Corregidor.” Awarded the Bronze Star with Presidential Citation, she also received a hero’s welcome returning in March 1945. Her experiences were detailed in a book, “Band of Angels.” She married Arthur Manning and died last year at age 98.
Gause’s widow, Ruth Evans, married Vernon Carter, an Army sergeant who survived the Pearl Harbor attack. She and her son, Damon Lance Gause, preserved Rocky Gause’s journal and turned it into a book, “The War Journal of Major Damon ‘Rocky’ Gause,” published in 1999.
Vernon Carter, a lifelong Jefferson resident now in his 90s, barely escaped death himself during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A shell crashed through his barracks only 3 feet from his bed. He is one of the few Georgia survivors remaining.
Garland Reynolds of Gainesville interviewed Ruth Evans Gause Carter for the upcoming documentary last spring. She died just a day before Reynolds made a presentation on the stories within a story to the Jefferson Rotary Club earlier this month.
Reynolds is a friend of Tim Gray, chairman of the nonprofit World War II Foundation, which has produced numerous award-winning documentaries for PBS. He mentioned Gause’s heroics to Gray when they were traveling in North Georgia. The Gause story fascinated Gray, and a fundraising effort to finance the film began.
In the documentary, Emmy Award winner Chandler Massey, grandson of Kayanne and Abit Massey of Gainesville, will be the voice of Rocky Gause. Country singer and songwriter Corey Smith of Jackson County will be the voice of Capt. W.L. Osborne. The documentary will be narrated by Kyle Chandler of Social Circle, who won an Emmy as Coach Taylor in “Friday Night Lights.”
Tax-deductible donations for the documentary may be made to World War II Foundation-501c3, 333 White Horn Drive, Suite One, Kingston, R.I. 02881, or www.wwiifoundation.org/donate.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.