BY NANCY GAGNET | MIRROR REPORTER — Jack Pfleghaar has lived a long life.
The 96-year-old WWII veteran, MHS graduate and former Maumee volunteer firefighter recently reflected on his life, but especially his time in the military, in a fitting tribute for Veterans Day.
“I am the luckiest person and I don’t deserve it,” he said.
Born on October 23, 1924, Jack grew up in Maumee. At 6 feet tall, he was a formidable athlete in high school, playing football and running the hurdles in track.
“I never got beat,” he recalled.
Shortly after graduation, he followed his brother Donald’s lead and joined the U.S. Marine Corps, going on to serve admirably and traveling far from Maumee to the South Pacific, where intense and deadly fighting left him profoundly changed for many years.
“I couldn’t talk about war for years – I would get so emotional I couldn’t talk about it,” he said.
At age 18, Jack enlisted in the service and traveled first to Cleveland, then to Camp Pendleton in San Diego. He was sent to Hawaii for radio school, and then on to Peleliu.
“The neat thing about going to Peleliu was that I had to cross the equator,” said Jack.
Peleliu is an island in the island nation of Palau. It was the site of the Battle of Peleliu, which resulted in the highest casualty rate of any amphibious assault in American military history. Of the approximately 28,000 Marines and infantry troops involved, 40 percent – or 9,800 – of the Marines and soldiers who fought for the island died or were wounded.
Jack was assigned to the 3rd Armored Amphibious Battalion.
“It was a new outfit and we were on one side of the bay and the 1st Marine Corps was on the other side, but the equipment did not arrive until the day before we were going to go into battle,” he remembered.
While waiting, the soldiers played baseball and basketball and went swimming. Once the equipment arrived and was loaded, the men boarded the ship and spent the evening letting off steam by indulging in alcohol, but Jack wasn’t too interested.
“I may have had a beer, but I didn’t drink much,” he said.
On September 15, after days of watching U.S. battleships and airplanes bomb the island, Jack was sent in. He was among 900 soldiers in the first wave heading to shore with seven other soldiers in an LVT (Landing Vehicle Tracked), a large armored amphibious landing craft.
“We headed in and I don’t know what happened to the other craft around us, but we hit the coral reef 50 or 60 yards from shore and as soon as we hit the coral reef – boom – we stopped dead in the water. Now, we had no training, so we just sat there. If those people had given us instructions and told us that as soon as we got hit to get out, we would have, but they didn’t. Then, after a minute or two, we were hit again,” he said.
Upon the second strike the LVT immediately burst into flames.
“I don’t know how I knew that there was something in front of me that I could get through, but as soon as I saw the fire, I dove through it and I made it out,” he said.
Eventually reaching shore, Jack soon realized that he was the only survivor of the entire crew.
“I laid there like a fetus. Fortunately, there weren’t any Japanese in the area, so I was lucky – I’ve been lucky all of my life, even today,” he said.
Jack laid on the beach until three fellow Marines told him to move, which was fortunate for him, because he made it back to the landing just as chaos erupted.
“There were machine guns, cannons, hand grenades, snipers all around,” he said. “If I had laid there another 10 minutes, I would have been dead. It was horrible, it was the most frightening experience I have ever had. You can’t believe it. It’s like the world is falling down on you and there is nothing you can do about it.”
Jack eventually made it to safety and remained on the island for a couple of days.
He took part in subsequent battles, including one in which a comrade was hit in the head and killed, while Jack was hit in the back.
“When the corpsman came and patched me up, he asked me if I wanted a Purple Heart and I told him that everyone I had been with the first three days had been killed. I thought they deserved the Purple Heart instead of me. I thought I didn’t really deserve it,” said Jack.
Like so many soldiers, the experience of living through the horrors of battle had a long-lasting and significant impact on his life.
“I’ll tell you what happens when you are in combat – it happened to me – we called it the Asiatic stare,” he said. “Something happens to your brain that somehow, when other people are killed beside you, somehow you have to keep going. This is where you are, this is what you have to do, and you just keep going.”
After being discharged and returning to Maumee, Jack took a job with Ohio Bell, which later became AT&T. He also served as a volunteer firefighter for the city of Maumee.
Later, he worked in the field of education, teaching vocational electronics at Whitmer High School while pursuing higher education at The University of Toledo.
He also taught night courses at Owens Community College for individuals working at Toledo Edison.
Later in his life, from 1989 to 1991, he went to Frankfurt Germany, teaching military children for the Department of Defense. While there, he also took psychology courses, which he says helped him cope with his PTSD.
“I couldn’t talk about war for many years, until I went to Germany and I had to take psychology classes, and even there, many times I would get so emotional I would have to walk out. I couldn’t stand it any longer. But that broke the dam, so finally I was able to talk about it like I am talking to you,” Jack said.
In April 1948, Jack married Jean McMullen. The two were married for 31 years until she passed away in April 1981. Then in 1982, he married Sally Marshall, who had worked for the CIA. The two traveled extensively, including overseas, until she passed away in December 2006.
Jack and Jean had three children, Gretchen, Nick and Eric, nine grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.
Jack lived for many years in the 200 block of West John Street until six months ago, when he moved to Genesis Village.
Jack’s son Nick said that his father made a DVD for family members, highlighting the photos and images from his time in the military.
“Dad didn’t talk about it when he was young. He did more in his late years,” said Nick. “He said he would never want to do it again, but would never have missed it for the world.”