NEW PORT RICHEY
Jack Perry's pencil-written letter to Tommy Hedge made it down one of the bloodiest hills in Korea, a soldier's horror story that would serve as his own last words.
Tom, you won't believe this but it's true, there were so many dead in the trench that you couldn't walk on the ground. We had to roll the bodies down the hill to make room for us. I've seen my buddies whom I would gladly have died for blown to smithereens. We had one of the heaviest artillery barrages of the war. I just hope I never go through another one like it.
Hedge read the letter over and over. He was a sailor aboard the Navy destroyer USS Vogelgesang. Just 18 months earlier, they had been classmates at Gulf High School in New Port Richey. With only 23 students in the senior class of 1951, they were like family. Jack was their leader, elected president of the Student Council. He made straight A's, excelled in athletics and earned a reputation for his practical jokes and sense of humor. His peers named him Wittiest Senior Boy.
In the library and study hall, students engaged in "staring contests.'' Eyes locked. The loser blinked first. Jack always won. On Senior Dress-up Day, he wore gold circular glasses, a felt hat and a diaper he made out of a bed sheet. "He made a convincing Ghandi,'' recalled Walter "Sam'' Casson, valedictorian and student vice president.
Jack's dad worked as a mechanic at George McKay's garage just blocks from Gulf High. In the barbershop next door, a framed picture of George's brother, Chester, hung on one wall. Chester had been the first man from town killed in World War II. Jack admired him.
Now Americans were at war once again. Communist troops had invaded South Korea. Jack and his buddy Ron Cooper, whose mom was secretary at the high school, went to the enlistment office in Tampa. Jack was eager to get into the fight.
"The recruiters loved him,'' said Cooper, now 76 and living in Bryan, Texas. "Everybody loved Jack.''
• • •
They sent us up Triangle Hill. Twelve of us reached the top. There we beat off 5 enemy counterattacks. In one place we had them piled 5 deep in a trench. We killed an estimated 300 to 400 of them. I got twenty of them with a napalm booby trap.
On Nov. 15, 1952, Tommy Hedge typed Jack's letter and sent it to Philip "Cap'' Capdevielle, the senior class adviser at Gulf High who had been an Army colonel. "Have you heard from Jack?'' Hedge asked. "In his letter, you will notice he ended abruptly and no signature. He probably had to move out in a hurry. I sure hope he's alright.''
As a 19-year-old high school senior, Jack could not have fully imagined what awaited him. But it came as no surprise that he excelled as a soldier. He was a natural leader. He earned quick promotions and was already a staff sergeant when his outfit, the 31st Infantry Regiment of the 7th Infantry Division, took on Triangle Hill.
It took weeks for word to get back to New Port Richey that John Clock "Jack'' Perry Jr. had been killed as waves of Chinese infantry soldiers stormed the hill on Oct. 30. The battle for high ground raged for more than a month, claiming 365 American soldiers, 1,096 South Koreans and an estimated 20,000 Chinese. Much of the fighting was hand-to-hand.
Ron Cooper's sister, Judy Cooper, now 75 and living in Palm Harbor, remembers when the news hit New Port Richey. She was a few years younger and had admired Jack as a role model.
"A news report came on and said John Clock Perry had been killed. I thought, 'My God, there can't be another John Clock Perry.' All these years later, it still makes me sad.''
• • •
Walt Casson left New Port Richey on a Navy ROTC scholarship to Vanderbilt. He came home and became a highly successful engineer. Every year since college, he has sent Christmas cards to his classmates. The roster is shrinking. Nine have died.
New Port Richey bears little resemblance to that quiet little village where everybody knew each other six decades ago. Gulf High had 312 graduating seniors last year. Today there are seven public high schools in western Pasco County. At 77, Casson has become a guardian of treasures like the 1951 yearbook, which he edited, and Jack Perry's last letter.
For a while, he thought it was lost. Then just recently, as he sorted through a stack of treasures, there it was. "I read it again,'' Casson said, "and thought about Veterans Day.'' He thought about Jack's name engraved on the granite memorial at the county government building along with 80 other Pasco County warriors killed in action since World War I.
Casson gets emotional when he thinks of the six words chiseled on the back of the memorial: May This Panel Never Be Used.
Tommy Hedge spent 20 years in the Navy, mainly on submarines. He retired as a lieutenant. "I missed every conflict,'' he said. "Lucky, I guess.'' He and his wife, Carol, have a carpet store in Homosassa Springs. He's glad to know the letter has been preserved and that all these years later, somebody is thinking about his old friend.
"Everybody liked Jack,'' he said. "Most of us (Class of '51) have his picture and we pull it out from time to time."
In Seoul, South Korea this year, the War Memorial museum celebrates the 60th anniversary of the three-year war. Old soldiers serve as docents. They salute the 37,000 Americans who died on their soil.
Jack Perry never made it back to his home town. His parents and older sister, Pat, moved away. His grave is among thousands at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. Born: April 13, 1932. Died: Oct. 30, 1952.
"They call the Korean War the Forgotten War,'' said Tommy Hedge, "but I can tell you, nobody who knew him forgets about Jack Perry.''
Bill Stevens is the Times editor in Pasco County. He can be reached at [email protected]