By Bill Robinson
BEREA – When you drive past the home of Gerald and Viola Pearson in Berea, there’s no mistaking that a Marine lives there.
The Marine Corps flag flies from a pole, just below the American flag.
At the front door, there’s a Marine Corps welcome mat.
In October 1943, World War II was raging around the globe and Pearson, a 17-year-old sophomore at Madison Central High School wanted to serve his country.
His parents finally overcame their reluctance and gave their consent for him to join the Marines. He along with 12 other young men shipped out from central Kentucky shipped out from Lexington for the Marine training base in San Diego. A little more than two years later, he was one of only two of them who came home.
Movies about the Marine Corps inspired him to choose that branch of the service, said Pearson, who will turn 87 in February. However, he quickly discovered that life as a Marine was nothing like what he’d seen in the movies.
“They treated us pretty rough” in basic training, he said.
But, the San Diego drill instructors were nowhere near as rough as the Japanese soldiers the Marine recruits faced in the Pacific, Pearson admitted.
After spending time in Guadalcanal, where they occasionally were harassed by Japanese fire, Pearson’s unit was “called out in the middle of the night” and shipped to the island of Guam.
There they stormed the beaches and after 21 days of fighting reclaimed the island that the Japanese had taken on the day after their attack on Pearl Harbor.
During the battle, Pearson was wounded in the leg by shrapnel, but he was patched up and before long was on his way to Okinawa, where some of the war’s most intense fighting took place.
“At 17, I wasn’t ready for that,” he said of the fighting and his wound, “but I don’t think anybody ever is.”
The fighting on Okinawa went on for 83 days as the Japanese were determined to take as many American lives as possible, even if the outcome of the war was becoming clear.
One of the last American casualties on Okinawa was Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner II, son of a former Kentucky governor who had commanded the state’s pro-Confederate militia.
In contrast to the bloody affairs on Guam and Okinawa, Pearson and his unit took a naval base on one of Japan’s main islands without a fight three days before the formal surrender..
“The were ready for us and ready for the war to be over,” he said. “They had American flags flying everywhere.
After 10 days with the U.S. occupation forces, the Marine Corps decided Pearson had enough time to go home.
The shrapnel wound was more easily overcome than the emotional scars inflicted on a teenager from Kentucky by the death and destruction of war, Pearson said.
After getting back home, Pearson eventually opened a truck stop on old US 25 just north of the Kentucky River. When Interstate 75 took traffic away from the business, he and his wife Viola moved to Chicago, where he worked 24 years for Montgomery Ward.
Not until 1968, did her husband come to terms with his war experience make his peace with God and became active for many years with the Full Gospel Business Men’s Committee, Viola said
The couple, who celebrated their 53rd anniversary last month, moved back to Madison County in 1988.
In his retirement, Pearson has enjoyed trading guns and shows and flea markets around the region. He also has enjoyed the friendship of other Marines and was one of 12 who formed the local Marine Corps League detachment. He and his wife also enjoy attending the Silver Creek Baptist Church.
Recently, Pearson underwent surgery to remove a tumor that threatened to claim his sight, if not his life.
He retains a sunny disposition, however, and needed no prompting to smile when he sat for a photo.
“He’s always smiling,” his wife said.
Bill Robinson can be reached at email@example.com or at 624-6690.