- The Washington Times - Monday, September 6, 2004

Godspeed, Doc

“By all accounts,” West Chicago’s Daily Herald wrote last week, “John ‘Doc’ McCaslin was the Dr. Doolittle of his time, a friend to both the people he encountered and the animals he nurtured.”

My lone uncle, a large-animal veterinarian for more than 60 years, who bred and raced horses while refusing to let Chicago’s suburbs encroach on his farm, passed away last Sunday, Aug. 29, at 86.

Wilbert Hageman had known Uncle John since 1949.

“Whatever he said, you listened,” he told the newspaper. “You look up to a person like that the rest of your lifetime.”

As did the many farmers whose horses and cows he cared for.

“The thing was they wouldn’t get a bill until Christmas time,” recalled Mike Ashby, a longtime board member of the DuPage County farm bureau. “Once a year, he’d sit down and figure out what he was owed. Everyone thought they owed him much more than he’d ever send them a bill for.”

More than anything else, “Doc” made people smile. Once, when things weren’t going well in the crop office, Mr. Ashby said he drove out to Uncle John’s farm, only to come upon a brown-and-white sign erected next to a pond.

“It said ‘Ashby Pond’ on it,” he smiled. “Doc said he thought I’d been around long enough to have something named after me.”

Few people knew of Uncle John’s heroic military service during World War II because, like many others of his generation, he rarely spoke about it. But let the record show that when President Roosevelt issued a secretive presidential call for volunteers for “a dangerous and hazardous mission,” Uncle John, a U.S. Army veterinarian, was among 3,000 American soldiers who soon became known as “Merrill’s Marauders.”

With little tank and artillery support — only “Doc’s” mules to carry their loads — the Marauders marched and fought their way for an amazing 1,000 miles, through thick jungle and over the Himalaya Mountains, to surprise the Japanese enemy in Burma. Uncle John earned a Purple Heart along the way.

But perhaps most noteworthy in the annals of military history, John “Doc” McCaslin might well have been the only U.S. soldier to ride a Japanese submarine bareback during the war.

“That was the night we got sunk,” he once recalled for a reporter, about the moonlit night of Feb. 8, 1945.

On board the liberty ship SS Peter Sylvester, which was steaming through the Indian Ocean, Uncle John retired below deck with the rest of the men in his company. Suddenly, without warning, two torpedoes fired by a Japanese submarine ripped into the belly of the ship.

“The ship broke right in half,” he said.

Wearing only a life jacket, Uncle John scrambled as fast as he could out of the ship’s hold, and within seconds, he was swimming in the ocean water. He was alone, but no doubt he was one of the lucky ones.

“Wouldn’t you know I was just floating there in the dark when that damn submarine surfaced right under me?” he said to the reporter’s surprise. “I washed off its deck in the moonlight.”

When daylight came, he could see no other sign of life. Luckily, he came across a portion of the ship’s loading platform, several wooden planks, and he clung to them for the next several days.

“I floated all day and all night and then all the next day,” he said. “Then, others from the ship who were on a lifeboat saw me and came over to pick me up. We were in that boat for two or three days when we got picked up by a ship and taken to Perth, Australia.”

There was no military salute, no sounding of the taps this past Thursday when Uncle John, surrounded by many friends and family, was laid to rest alongside his son, George, in a small West Chicago cemetery. But indeed, “Doc” was among the bravest of what is now rightly considered the greatest generation.

John McCaslin, whose column is nationally syndicated, can be reached at 202/636-3284 or [email protected]

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