Edgerton native and World War II veteran Jesse Reynolds was at first confused when he saw planes swooping over Pearl Harbor while stationed there 74 years ago.
The mark of the Japanese military, the rising sun icon, was spotted only after the planes had released some payload, a series of bombs that connected with numerous ships making up the waterborne U.S. fleet parked around Ford Island, a critical operation site for the Pearl Harbor base.
Like everyone else, Reynolds was caught off guard. His immediate instincts were to hit back.
“I didn’t feel ready, but I was half scared and half pissed off,” Reynolds said. “I was just in a mood to fight.”
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He recently retold the experience at his 100th birthday celebration Feb. 18 at the Cameron Veteran’s Home.
Reynolds’ story is part of an increasingly scarce number of first-person World War II accounts. According to Veterans of Foreign Wars records, Reynolds is the oldest surviving Missouri veteran who saw combat in Pearl Harbor.
Jim Rippy, veteran service information officer with the Missouri VFW, said there probably are fewer than 100 (former Pearl Harbor combatants) in the nation.
Reynolds was about four years into his seven-year career with the Navy, time he spent in part patrolling the water around Ecuador on the USS Radford, a ship he helped build.
The Pearl Harbor attack took him aback; though he said he said there were signs.
“I thought (President Franklin) Roosevelt kind of suspected the attack,” he said, adding that he could not have imagined the full extent of the events of Dec. 7, 1941.
Nor could other naval support staff, he said. A radar operator spotted the fleet of Japanese planes but misidentified them as U.S. aircraft.
Donning a decorated Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2172 hat and a colorful birthday sticker on his lapel, Reynolds traced the flight path of the attacking Japanese planes.
“The son of a guns come around like this,” he said, pointing to the flight path over the USS Macdonough, a curl around Ford Island, a sideways parabola opening to the west encircling Ford Island.
The attack damaged eight battleships, two of them irreparably.
As much urgency as Reynolds said he felt about responding to the attack that day, the plans to stage a ground invasion of Japan at the close of the war had him less excited.
Realities of ground combat with the Japanese involved the close-quarters warfare he’d heard was common in the European theater, precisely what he was trying to avoid when enlisting in the Navy.
Yet Reynolds remembers that he and others in the Navy were preparing for a ground invasion of Japan, even a week before the atomic bombs were dropped, ending the war.
The debates about the ethics of the bombing, the conversation around the most powerful war weapons ever developed — those aren’t debates Reynolds wants to be drawn into.
On the subject of whether the bomb was the appropriate response, he is unwavering.
“Lots of people died when (they) hit us in Pearl Harbor, too,” Reynolds said.
After spending a short stint guarding Japanese prisoners of war held in California, Reynolds was discharged in October 1945.
Reynolds connects with the elite status that many combatants of World War II earned; terms like “the greatest generation” suit him. It’s a status not matched by veterans of later conflicts, he notes. Conflicts in Vietnam and Korea in his opinion were not glorified in the same way because they lacked a resolution.
“We finished that war,” he said. “Korea was never finished.”
After he was discharged, Reynolds went to work for a packaging house in St. Joseph, then trained as a mechanic. In the decades that followed, Reynolds would marry and father two sons, Randy Reynolds and Ron Reynolds, and start an auto shop in Gallatin.
Both of his sons were in Cameron with their father for his birthday, and said their father inspired them to try to join the armed forces.
While Ron Reynolds was not accepted as a candidate for service; his brother was.
“Growing up for me, it didn’t register what he’d been through and how special it was,” Randy Reynolds said. “I didn’t really realize until I started getting older just what all he had been through.”
Ron Reynolds said his father’s life story, from its beginnings in the Great Depression to his service during World War II, is a consistent wellspring of inspiration for him.
“Just his entire body of work,” Ron Reynolds said. “From the early years to the war years; they’re a testament to his commitment, his integrity and honor in the way he’s lived his life.”
When Randy Reynolds’ wife died, he found inspiration and strength in the way his father dealt with the death of his spouse, Randy’s mother.
“It’s just the inspiration of his life, the way he lived his life with honor, that has always been a guiding beacon for me,” Ron Reynolds said.
Randy Reynolds says his father has been an inspiration to many. “The proudest thing is that my children and my grandchildren hold him in such high reverence because of that,” he said.