Four hundred students from Johnson High School heard the horror of World War II firsthand on Thursday from former military man Jack Blackwell.
The 84-year-old Homer resident served in the U.S. Navy from 1942 to 1945 and recalled memories of kamikaze pilots and Tokyo Rose radio broadcasts for four groups of ninth- through 12th-grade social studies classes.
While aboard the destroyer USS Taylor in the South Pacific, Blackwell worked in the office and manned the gun atop the ship.
He participated in 11 battles aboard the Taylor, and calls it a lucky ship because it sustained no major damage or high casualties during its three years of operation in World War II.
"I know it’s lucky," he said. "We were saved from a bomb ... and saved from a torpedo," he said. "If God hadn’t been with us that day, then that ship would’ve been blown to pieces."
The veteran’s presentation was part of Johnson High School’s Georgia Career Student Association, which encourages high schoolers to explore career options for their future.
Kathy Strickland teaches career technology and social studies classes at Johnson High School and organized Blackwell’s visit to the school. She said that she hopes to have veterans from various wars speak to students throughout the school year.
"I think it’s a great experience any time kids meet people from another generation," she said. "I want them to become responsible citizens and to appreciate what our veterans have done for us to enjoy the freedoms we have — and freedom doesn’t come cheap."
As the number of living World War II veterans dwindles, Strickland said that she wanted her students to have the opportunity to hear one tell his story.
"If (World War II) vets don’t open up and tell what they did, then you won’t know about it," Blackwell said.
Blackwell told students of how he got word to his family about his general location while in the South Pacific. To bypass censorship regarding exact locations of troops, he said that he would underline riddles in his letters home that would give his parents clues of his whereabouts.
He said that in his letters he would ask about Philip’s well-being, implying that he was currently near the Philippines. To communicate his location in New Guinea, he would inquire about "that bird that Miss Hill had," which was a guinea.
Blackwell said that he recalls the telltale signs of World War II coming to an end. He said that he remembers standing on the deck of the USS Taylor and watching planes fly over the Bay of Tokyo after they dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was also aboard the USS Taylor in the Bay of Tokyo when Japanese officials formally surrendered in the same bay on the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945.
The USS Taylor mascot, a terrier named Subic, was aboard the USS Missouri as Japanese news reporters came onto the ship to attend the surrender ceremonies, Blackwell said.
"He bit one of the (Japanese) newspapermen on the leg," he said.
Ariel Simmons, a 10th-grade student at Johnson High School, said that hearing Blackwell’s stories has a greater impact on students than reading about history from a textbook.
"I thought it was really eye-opening to know about what soldiers went through during World War II," she said. "Letting kids know about the wars that happened in the past makes us realize how grateful we should be for the things we have now, like freedom."