Like millions of Americans during World War II, James Carroll considered himself a patriotic person.
One day, after hearing a particularly impassioned speech by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he decided to go to the local post office and enlist in the Navy.
They wouldn't take him. You're only 15, the recruiter reminded Carroll.
So Carroll went home and tried to change the birthday on his birth certificate and his ration book and made a mess of it. Then he found a notary public who would give him an affidavit saying he was born in 1925 — which made him 17 years old.
So at 15, while still in the 10th grade and without telling his parents, James Elwood Carroll joined the U.S. Navy and went to war.
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All these years later, at age 87, Carroll — who is still close to his enlistment height and weight, albeit with less and grayer hair — said he can't really explain why he wanted to leave home so badly. There was no falling out with his parents or his six sisters or older brother. No problems at his Chester, Pa., high school. He just wanted to get into the war.
His mother accepted his decision, although she later wrote a series of unsuccessful letters to FDR about her son being only 15. "My father worked the night shift," Carroll recalled. "He didn't miss me for a week."
Luckily, Carroll — at 5 feet 10 and 130 pounds — wasn't the smallest recruit in boot camp. No one ever asked his age but being away from home for the first time at 15 was nonetheless a rite of passage Carroll wasn't fully ready for.
"I cried every night," he said.
And, in the mornings, when everyone shaved in the latrine, Carroll — not even old enough to have facial hair — lathered up and "shaved" with a safety razor that had no blade.
Once through boot camp, he trained as a pharmacist's mate. He learned first aid and basic nursing skills. He learned how to apply field dressings and how to suture wounds. Shipped to Brisbane, Australia, Carroll awaited his first assignment. On shore leaves, he said he sipped Coca-Colas while all the other sailors drank beer and flirted with the girls.
At last, he was assigned to a ship: LST-120. (LST stands for "Landing Ship, Tank" but a more accurate phrase would have been "Large Slow Targets," according to many of the soldiers who served on the boats made to land battle-ready tanks and soldiers directly onto enemy beaches.) Carroll's job was to tend to the onboard injuries or illnesses of the ship's seven officers and 104 enlisted men. He had little to do, he said, since everyone was young, fit and fed well.
The first action he saw was the Battle of Saipan in 1944.
Carroll was in the first wave to go ashore, assigned to take care of the radioman and the beachmaster, the officer in charge of directing the landing.
As he stepped onto the beach, Carroll said, he saw the radioman and beachmaster on the ground, arms frantically trying to dig holes in the sand.
"I thought it was kind of funny. At 15, you're invincible. I didn't understand what they were doing — until the first bullets went by my head.
"Then I was down with them about 30 seconds later, trying to dig a hole in the sand."
They all survived the attack.
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Carroll, who walks easily with a cane despite being a bit bent by age, sits on his waterside patio and talks about his life from the time he enlisted. He consults a thick folder of notes and printouts, just to be sure the dates are correct. Like so many veterans of combat, he doesn't like to talk about what he saw or did.
"I was compassionate," he said. "I did the best I could.
"You don't think about it."
LST-120 was stationed offshore during the Saipan invasion. Later that year, during the invasion of Tinian, another of the Mariana Islands, Carroll said, he would volunteer to go ashore and treat wounded Marines. He would go from one to another, sometimes answering the call of "corpsman!" or sometimes just responding to an arm waving for help.
He would treat the ones he could.
"If they had a big abdominal wound, you would just go on by."
Perhaps the starkest memory Carroll carries with him came from a scene he witnessed after the fighting was over. The Marines had wiped out a Japanese pillbox with flame throwers, incinerating all of the troops inside.
To determine how many Japanese they had killed, the Marines would "rake the ashes out, count the number of shoes and divide by two.
"After I got back," Carroll said, "I tried to wipe out all memories."
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Carroll was sent back to the United States when his LST was damaged in a typhoon but he kept working in the medical field until his discharge in 1947. He was a quick study. He liked learning. He finished his high school studies and got his GED while in the Navy.
He was in the right place at the right time with his curiosity about medical advances. Carroll soon found himself specializing in cardiology equipment and EKGs, first working for Navy doctors, then for civilian MDs — and eventually for himself in the St. Petersburg medical technology company he started.
After Carroll was discharged, he returned to Pennsylvania for a short time before moving to Coral Gables and then to St. Petersburg in the 1950s where he founded Medtek Southeast Inc., a company that sold EKG machines, defibrillators, pacemakers and other coronary equipment.
He closed the business after 40 years and retired, volunteering with local charities such as St. Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army where he has cooked meals for hundreds and coordinated holiday collections. The same skills that made him a quick study in the Navy and afterward remain. Carroll has a whip-quick sense of humor that he unleashes with a small smile.
He and his third wife, Mary Ann, have been married 31 years. Between them, they have seven children, 12 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. The oldest is 66; the youngest, 3. Carroll is the only one with two birth dates: Oct. 29, 1925, the one he gave the Navy; and April 17, 1927, the real one.
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World War II veterans are rapidly dying off — about 550 a day, according to recent U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs figures.
To honor those who are left, nonprofit organizations like the Honor Flight Network are flying veterans to Washington, D.C., to tour the nation's capital as guests and heroes and flying them back, all in the same day, all for free.
Carroll's trip is scheduled for May 6.
News researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.
Fred W. Wright Jr. is a freelance writer who lives in Seminole. He can be reached at [email protected]