By: Jon Mark Beilue | Amarillo Globe-News
Jack Moss had the death hiccups. That was a tell-tale symptom for Japanese soldiers that malaria and dysentery had overtaken an American prisoner.
He was useless for building railroads in Burma, and so any prisoner in that condition was sent away from the general population to starve and die.
“He said, ‘No way. I’m not going,’” said Sandra Hanna, Moss’ daughter.
Moss, still just 19, willed himself to stand up when the Japanese needed a work party of 10. He couldn’t stand on his own, but found a stick to lean on for a crutch.
A Japanese guard took rare pity on Moss and shielded him from the worst of the labor.
The soldier found a position where Moss could sit down and hammer railroad ties in the tropical heat.
In 1944, Moss avoided the death camp and eventually avoided dying of malaria. More than 70 years later, Moss lives out his days in the Memory Unit of Ussery-Roan Texas State Veterans Home. Death might not be far off again for this proud man, but for different reasons.
The men are there in wheelchairs, many with vacant stares and slumped shoulders, belying a time when they were the best a free world offered.
At age 92, Moss has been at Ussery-Roan nearly a year. The fog of age, not Japanese guards, is now his enemy. As his daughter said, Wednesday might be her father’s last Veterans Day, but Moss has never been one to just accept finality.
Before he was a respected auto mechanic for decades with Moss Automotive on Third Avenue, before he was credited with building the first twin-engine drag racer, young Jack was a kid — the youngest of five — who quickly became a man.
Most of his friends in Amarillo were older and in the National Guard in the late 1930s. Moss heard the Army was about to activate the Guard and he wouldn’t see them for a year or more.
So, at age 16, he lied about his age, got his mother Nola Mae to sign for him, and joined the National Guard. And with rumblings of war, they were soon activated.
Just after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Moss was part of B Battery, 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery of the 36th Division. He found himself in Java, and 558 Americans were overrun by the Japanese.
Not quite 19, Moss would be a prisoner of war for the next 3½ years in Java, Malaysia and Burma until the war’s end in August 1945. The atrocities and mistreatment by the Japanese, Moss knows all too well.
The cloud of dementia can’t cover Moss’ memory of seeing three Japanese soldiers bayonet a fellow American soldier to his death. He repeated the incident twice.
The first of eight beatings with a bamboo pole came when a friend had a book of poems. One was titled, “I Wonder Who’s Sleeping With My Wife?” A guard thought it was about him, and beat Moss, even though it wasn’t his book.
“Those beatings are why I was hard of hearing all my life,” he said.
Men contacted tropical ulcers, a flesh-eating disease, especially on the legs. Moss would stand in a river and fish would attack his dead flesh, which actually helped heal his sores.
Tropical ulcers helped him forget his front teeth were mostly knocked out with the butt of a rifle when he didn’t bow fast enough to a Japanese soldier.
“It didn’t really matter,” he said with a slight grin. “All we ate was a little rice, and there were no girls around.”
Moss stood his ground against the Japanese, which earned him equal parts grudging respect and scorn. Once, he was caught sneaking some vegetation growth, which was considered food, into camp. He was left hanging by his arms from a tree for more than an hour as a lesson.
A guard saw the light of a cigarette he secretly smoked behind a latrine late one night. They fought. He broke the guard’s nose ,but it was too dark to identify Moss, and the guard would have been in trouble for allowing it to happen. He escaped without punishment.
Twice Moss rescued animals — a kitten, which guards were throwing in and out of a large can full of scorpions, and a young goat who was put in a sack and swung around to see how far guards could throw it.
“They thought I was crazy,” Moss said.
Moss did what he could for the war effort. He had to clean officers’ quarters, a degrading position, and he responded by scooping up bed bugs from his own infested mat and putting them in their beds before making them.
The Japanese learned Moss was good with cars, so he was in charge of the camp’s vehicles. Often working alone, he put dirt down in the oil pan and loosened the U-joints, an act that had he been caught would have meant torture or even death.
“You got to look at it like an 18-year-old boy,” Moss said, “You just took it as it came. I didn’t worry about what came next.”
What eventually came next was a full life, seven medals for his service, a young wife Nellie Jo who he would meet at the Nat Ballroom, three children, grandchildren and great-children, an established business.
Moss and his daughter recalled those days Monday in the lobby area of the Memory Unit. Not far away is a large TV with disinterested veterans in front of it.
Age has stolen much from them, from men like Jack Moss. But many things it has not, nor will. And so he sits in his wheelchair, 70 years from a time when boys became men and courage carried the day, every bit a veteran in full.