Jim Hall tried to enlist at age 14. He was a big boy for his time, 5-foot-10, 150, and passed his physical. But the recruiter sent him home to get his birth certificate, and Jim never went back.
At 15, visiting a friend in Martinsburg, W. Va., where it seemed every available young man had already been drafted, he went into the draft office, told the recruiter he had turned 18 the day before, and they signed him up.
"I was almost afraid the war would get over before I got a chance to get in," he says now in his wheelchair, at age 85.
He has no regrets.
At age 17, in April 1945, he landed on Okinawa, one of two medics with 25 Marines in his platoon. Of the 27 men, 20 were buried there; seven came home, every one wounded.
Jim was cut down on April 13, a Friday. The Marine running point for his platoon took three shots to the gut. Jim heard the screams and cries for help and his training took over. He jumped over a barricade and ran for his wounded man. He made it 10 feet before he took two shots to his own belly from a sniper.
The enemy kept firing at Jim, but gave away his own position and was soon shot dead. Jim, his legs paralyzed, crawled the remaining 25 feet to his wounded mate. He gave him a shot of morphine, shoved the intestines back inside the man's stomach, wrapped him in sterile gauze, and held him in his arms. Within a minute his fellow Marine was dead.
As Jim tells the story now, in the ice cream parlor of the Masonic Home in Burlington County, the event is as vivid as it was nearly 70 years ago. Jim's blue eyes are as clear as the horrible memory he carries, and tears begin to well. He brings his gnarled fist to his mouth, and pauses to compose himself.
Jim doesn't get worked up thinking or talking about his own wounds, which nearly killed him, just those of his poor mate.
Jim's lieutenant, from behind the barricade, yelled out: "Can you make it back?"
Jim replied, "I don't think so." He felt weak, had chills. As a medic, he knew shock was coming on. The wounds in his abdomen looked like little holes the size of a dime, but the wound at his rear, where the bullets had exited, was gushing blood, big enough for his fist.
Months earlier, on Guadalcanal, Jim, from Pleasantville, N.J., had met another Marine, also from Pleasantville. They had gone to the same high school, but two years apart; they had not known each other.
Now this Pleasantville corporal leaped over the barricade, raced through enemy fire, scooped up the injured Jim, raced with him back to the barricade, threw him over and leaped over himself. He saved Jim's life.
Surgeons on the beach, and on the hospital ship, and back in San Diego, were able to repair Jim's colon, and to this day it works fine.
His legs and shattered pelvis recovered enough for him to walk with a cane, and to work for 30 years, until things weakened and he became wheelchair-bound in his early 50s.
When Jim got home from war, at 18, he mostly drank for two years. But he finally realized he would soon be dead if he didn't change, so he joined the church, and began a productive life in business.
In 1949, at age 21, he attended a church function in March, where he met 24-year-old Florence Winterborne. They went out on a first date in April, got engaged in May, and married in June. Their marriage lasted 60 years. Three years ago last week she died.
Jim and Florence had always talked about, dreamed about, taking a train across the country. But they never got around to it. One thing then another, then she was sick with Parkinson's for the last decade of her life. And money was always tight.
Even with his disabled veteran's pay, his Social Security, and his pension from the FAA, where he worked for 20 years, Jim's income is $4,000 a month, and his monthly bill at the Masonic Home in Burlington Township, where he has lived for 15 years, is about $4,700. The Masons make up the difference, and he is grateful.
Jim's platoon was part of the Sixth Marines Division, formed in the South Pacific in World War II. So many of his fellow vets are dead, more dying every day. He himself nearly died from a bowel obstruction last spring.
Jim thought this was a good time to make his own last hurrah. He bought a train ticket to Portland, Ore., on his daughter's credit card, to attend a reunion of the Sixth Marine Division. A friend from the Masonic Home, Bob Higgins, an Air Force veteran, will be going with him.
An activities director at the Masonic Home told Jim about the Twilight Wish Foundation, which does its best to honor last wishes from frail seniors. The foundation is paying for Jim's trip, $3,000.
Jim leaves Monday. He's got a nervous stomach. He hasn't strayed too far from the Masonic Home in many years. But he's excited, like that 15-year-old kid again, eager to see his country by train, to sit back and watch the countryside go by.
He doesn't know if he'll know anybody at the reunion, but he shared the same sandy beaches with them, drew the same enemy fire. And for this old, disabled veteran, it will be good to be among his band of brothers one last time.