SPRING HILL — From serving as No. 1 radio operator in the Pacific Theater for Adm. Chester W. Nimitz during World War II, to hearing Tokyo Rose announce his name on the air, to surviving Japanese bombing raids on Saipan, one might imagine that Jack M. Abbey's military service ranked as the highlight of his life.
Not so, the 90-year-old Abbey said Thursday. "This week was."
On Tuesday, the Army Air Corps veteran from Spring Hill joined some 60 WWII servicemen from west-central Florida on an Honor Flight to visit the nation's war memorials, particularly the World War II Memorial, in Washington, D.C.
Abbey, a native of Michigan and a Florida resident since the early 1990s, had visited the capital several times, but had not seen the WWII memorial, completed in 2004. He said the facing edifices representing the war's campaigns in the Pacific and Atlantic theaters, the central pool and heroic fountain, and the surrounding columns were "impressive."
But the people who turned out to recognize their elder freedom fighters outweighed the marble and mortar.
"I was so overtaken," Abbey recounted. "I was overwhelmed."
The grateful entourage presented each veteran with a commemorative shirt and cap emblazoned with "Honor Flight West Central Florida."
Onlookers came to watch as the veterans and their guardians posed for a panoramic photo in front of the fountain.
In a surprise mail call, the servicemen — all were men in this group — received stacks of letters from friends, family members, even schoolchildren unknown to them, thanking them for helping to secure freedom for future generations.
Fanning out his stack of some 200 good tidings, Abbey choked up.
"They're so touching," he said.
He pulled out a note of thanks from a seventh-grader, signed by a girl named Veronica.
"I can't read them all," he said with a sniffle.
What Abbey endured during his wartime tenure, from 1942 to 1946, is deserving of gratitude.
As an 18-year-old released from his brief Navy enlistment due to diminished eyesight, he pulled strings to get into the Army. Initially offered an enlistment assist if he would work on a war-related assignment in Detroit, Abbey turned it down.
"I wanted some action," he said.
He got it in the Pacific.
Among other things, he suspects he received and sent the secret radio messages in August 1945 to release the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
While he was on the island of Saipan, with his camp tent tethered at the end of a runway, Japanese bombers strafed the airfield repeatedly. Behind his tent was the "Suicide Cliff," he said, where "hundreds, whole families" of the island's Japanese inhabitants regularly jumped to their deaths rather than be captured.
"We had orders not to stop them," Abbey said grimly.
The experience still is painful for him to recall.
As a radio operator, he endured six hours on, six hours off with the earphones. The Japanese continually tried to sabotage the airwaves, broadcasting loud, piercing noise.
"My hearing got very bad," said Abbey, who has relied on a hearing aid for years. "I (still) can't hear birds."
And the airwaves carried the charismatic voice of English-speaking Japanese propagandist Tokyo Rose.
"We turned her on to listen to songs from home," Abbey said.
Tokyo Rose, knowingly and enticingly, broadcast American music.
"She was trying to interrupt our morale," Abbey said.
Recalling a chilling on-air incident, he said, "I got my shipping orders from Tokyo Rose. She said, 'The following people are going to Guam.' She read my name. Then I went down to headquarters, and we were on the list to ship. She had the information before I did."
In that same broadcast, Tokyo Rose told them "we won't make it."
But Abbey did.
From his wallet now, he pulls a high school photograph of his then-sweetheart and ultimate wife, Annette.
"I carried it with me," he said of the photo.
He still does.
At his discharge in 1946, Abbey noted, "I got off the ship and went straight to the altar."
After his years in the military, Abbey became a design engineer, thanks in part to military schooling at Philadelphia's Drexel University. He first worked for a Ypsilanti, Mich., foundry, then in Sears, Roebuck & Co.'s power tool design department, lastly for the Ford Motor Co. throughout North and South America. His work garnered 18 U.S. patents.
Abbey's working years came full circle when one of his last projects was helping to engineer the Saturn rocket booster for NASA's Apollo missions.
Abbey didn't need to discuss his service and life accomplishments with others on last week's Honor Flight. Each had his own stories. But they shared this life experience, which continued through the flight's return to St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.
They were met by "an honor guard, bands, bagpipes, 500 people, two-blocks long, both sides — half of MacDill (Air Force Base) was there," Abbey said, pausing with emotion. "So touching."
The Honor Flights are coordinated by nonprofit groups across the country to take veterans to see the war monuments.
HPH Hospice sponsored Abbey's trip as part of its We Honor Veterans program. The agency has pledged to sponsor trips for a WWII veteran from each of its service counties — Hernando, Pasco and Citrus.
Abbey's wife, Annette, and a son, David, both received hospice care from HPH.
James Abbey of Novi, Mich., served as guardian for his dad on last week's trip.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]