Veterans Day a time to reflect on the courage of men like Cox

By Thaddeus Miller / tmiller@losbanosenterprise.comNovember 9, 2012 

Joe Cox has mostly good memories of his time in the service to his county.

"I've been lucky all my life," said the 87-year-old resident of Los Banos and veteran of World War II and the Korean War.

Veterans Day on Sunday brings a time to reflect on the dedication to flag and country of Cox and his brethren in arms.

Born in Booneville, Ark., Cox came to California at 8 and attended high school in Reedley and Parlier.

In December 1943, right after the last basketball game of the season, Cox walked into the Navy recruiting station and enlisted. He said he would have been drafted if he hadn't volunteered.

"You'd see and hear about the mud and stuff, and I didn't want to get into the mud in the Army," Cox said. "And, I'd never been to sea before, so I thought it'd be a good adventure."

He was assigned as a radio operator on the USS Orion. He said he remembers a battery of questions from a psychologist and a test to hold his breath for at least 60 seconds.

From the Orion, Cox moved on to the USS Batfish where he read sonar and used the periscope as a lookout. "First you scan the surface, then you scan the sky," Cox said. "You're looking for anything that moves."

The Batfish was patrolling the coast of Honshu, Japan's largest island. One night, about 18 months into Cox's service, the sub surfaced to shell a town called Nagata. Cox's job was to keep the ship's bow clear.

"It got just a little bit chilly, and I was looking around and all I could see was water," Cox said, with a laugh. "I was thinking to myself, 'God, here I am 8,000 miles away from home and I barely passed the swimming test to get out of boot camp.' "

While picking up downed airmen on another occasion, an American bomber mistakenly made a run on the Batfish.

"It got a little hairy that night," he said.

"The next night we got a message back, 'Pilot no longer a pilot,' " Cox said with a laugh.

He spent four years on the Batfish. He loved the food, he says, showered maybe once a week and rotated two beds among three seamen. It's what was called a hot bunk.

"Once you get used to living out of a sea bag, there's nothing to it," he said.

Seamen took shifts of four hours on and eight hours off, where they watched movies, read and studied.

He remembers a message coming over the radio in 1945 about a bomb that had destroyed a whole city.

"We sent that message to the rest of the crew and nobody believed us," Cox said, referring to the Hiroshima bombing. "We didn't believe it ourselves either."

After the war, Cox moved back to California. He farmed a little, before going to Reedley College and Cal Poly. He had also signed on as a Navy reserve.

"I was told by the recruiter at that time, when I got out, 'Joe, you'll never get called back in,' " Cox said.

In 1950, he reported for duty aboard the USS McDermut, a destroyer that would patrol the east coast of Korea and protect aircraft carriers.

"The Navy really wasn't in too much of a danger in the Korean War, I didn't feel anyway, except for those floating mines," Cox said, without irony about his two years on the McDermut.

Cox said, though he had some close calls, he was never really afraid for his life.

"Submarine duty is different, you know, because you're there with a lot of guys," Cox said. "It's like a small family."

Cox said he has a hard time putting himself in the shoes of modern-day soldiers.

"I watch all the time on TV these kids from Iraq and Afghanistan, and over there, that's kind of scary stuff," he said.

Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 388-6562 or by email at tmiller@losbanosenterprise.com.

Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 388-6562 or by email at tmiller@losbanos enterprise.com.

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