Art Jackson finally got the respect he deserved.
He had to die for it to happen.
A World War II Medal of Honor recipient, Jackson was honored with tributes at the White House and a ticker tape parade in New York City, but made a mistake that haunted him for the rest of his life. He was dismissed from the Marine Corps for it – by President John F. Kennedy – without a chance to tell his side of the story. He died last month at 92, seemingly forgotten by the country he served.
Until his memorial service.
Several hundred people, representing the military, veterans’ groups and police and fire departments among others, turned out to pay their respects at the Idaho Veterans Cemetery. The Marine Corps sent an honor guard and its band from Washington, D.C. When the band played the Marine Corps and Navy hymns, battle-hardened veterans brushed away tears. Marine Corps jets were dispatched from Yuma, Ariz., for a flyover. Marines in their distinctive dress uniforms seemed to be everywhere.
Perhaps it was the Marine Corps’ way of apologizing.
President Harry Truman pinned the Medal of Honor on Jackson’s uniform in 1945 for his role in a battle – known as “the bitterest battle of the war for the Marines” – on the Pacific Island of Peleliu. Then a 19-year-old private, Jackson singlehandedly took out a dozen Japanese machine-gun emplacements, repeatedly risking his own life and saving his platoon from almost certain destruction.
The fateful mistake happened 17 years later. By then a captain in the Marine Corps, Jackson was stationed at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He was escorting a suspected Cuban spy off of the base when the man lunged at him and tried to take his weapon. Jackson shot him in self defense.
Self defense, terrible timing. It was a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis; tensions between the U.S., Cuba and the Soviet Union couldn’t have been higher. The shooting of a Cuban national by a U.S. Marine would have become an international incident. Instead of reporting the shooting, Jackson decided to hide the body.
“People disappeared there all the time,” his wife said. (She asked that her name not be used because of privacy concerns.) “He buried the body and hoped the whole thing would just go away.”
It might have, but for a fellow Marine who helped bury the body and told the story over drinks at the officers’ club. Jackson was ordered to Washington D.C., where Kennedy told the Medal of Honor recipient he could no longer be in the Marine Corps.
He also was ordered never to talk about what happened at Guantanamo, and didn’t until he told me the story in 2013. He was in his late 80s by then, Kennedy and almost everyone else involved was long dead and he figured it was time. Even so, he had misgivings. That long-ago night at Guantanamo and what happened because of it still troubled him.
But the full extent of how much it bothered him didn’t become clear until after his death.
While she was going through the files in her late husband’s office, Jackson’s wife found letter after letter that he’d written in hopes of returning to the military. He wrote to military officers, congressmen, anyone he could think of in hopes of getting a chance to clear his name and return to the military life he loved.
“He never had a chance to tell his side of the story,” she said. “He never had a court martial or a hearing or anything. They just booted him out.”
His side of the story was that he had little choice but to try to hide the suspected spy’s body. He was convinced that if he’d reported the shooting, he would have been tried in a Cuban court and sent to a now abandoned Cuban prison, which a history website describes as “a den of horror.” He believed to his dying day that he’d have been tortured and died in that prison.
All of his attempts later in his life to clear his name and return to active duty were denied. The tersest rejection letter found in his office files was from Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s press secretary and later a U.S. senator. The most sympathetic responses were from California Rep. Charles Gubser (Jackson was living in California at the time) and Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy H.C. “Barney” Barnum.
Gubser wrote that “quite frankly, they are afraid of the public relations which would result from the press stories (about Jackson returning to the military after the Guantanamo incident). I feel this is entirely wrong since you have been honorably discharged from the Marine Corps and have not been court martialed. This is like convicting a man after he has been proven innocent.”
Barnum’s letter to Jackson was equally candid:
“I understand the pain in your heart, and if it’s any consolation I remember you for the great Marine you were and still are in your heart. Life’s a bitch sometimes – real justice sometimes doesn’t prevail.”
Barred from returning to the military, Jackson worked as a mail carrier, at a liquor store and for the Veterans Administration. He worked multiple jobs and slept on a floor for seven years to pay off an ex-wife’s debts.
He spent his later years living quietly, almost anonymously. The Marine who was nicknamed “Bull” because of his physical prowess and courage in battle had a soft side. When a baby bird fell from a tree at his family’s cabin, he cared for it until it could fly. When he whistled, the bird flew to him.
Every now and then, a local reminder came that he was an American hero. He was honored on the blue turf at Albertsons Stadium. Gov. Butch Otter proclaimed a statewide Arthur Jackson Day in 2016. The Boise Police Department named one of its K-9 dogs Jackson after him. The name was suggested by a local boy, now 14, who befriended him and intends to become a Marine because of him.
At Boise’s VA Medical Center, doctors and nurses returned after hours to hold a ceremony honoring him on the night he died, and immediately lowered the flags to half mast. They didn’t know, or care, about what happened at Guantanamo. They knew their patient, and to know Art Jackson was to admire him. I knew him because he was my neighbor. I’ve never know a finer person.
National recognition came belatedly, at the end.
U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, paid tribute to Jackson on the Senate floor, saying that although he was gone, his example “will inspire future generations of Americans for decades to come.” (There were no such tributes from Idaho’s senators.)
Four Star General Robert Neller, commandant of the Marine Corps, wrote shortly before Jackson’s death to say he’d heard that he was facing some health issues and wanted him to know “that the Marines are standing with you during this difficult time. … You played a vital role in shaping the warrior ethos of our Corps.”
Neller made sure that the Marine Corps pulled out all the stops to honor in death the hero it was unwilling or unable to acknowledge in life. No one, his wife said, would have been more surprised by the memorial service than Jackson himself:
“He would have been absolutely delighted.”
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Statesman and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.