Tim Woodward: WWII hero breaks long silence over shooting at Guantanamo

In the early 1960s, Medal of Honor recipient Art Jackson nearly escalated the Cold War.

May 26, 2013 

President Harry Truman presents the Medal of Honor to Art Jackson.

The night of Sept. 30, 1961, was, literally and figuratively, one of the darkest of Art Jackson's life.

The 36-year-old Marine captain's job that gloomy night was to escort a man suspected of being a Cuban spy off the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay. But a momentary delay - the lock on a gate wouldn't open - began a series of events that haunts the Boisean to this day.

Jackson is Idaho's under-the-radar Medal of Honor recipient. Others - Kuna's Bernie Fisher, the recently deceased Ed Freeman of Boise, even the late Vernon Baker of far-off St. Maries - all have received more local media attention. Jackson has seldom spoken publicly about his military career and never about its Guantanamo chapter.

A company commander at Guantanamo on that September night, he discovered a Cuban bus driver named Ruben Lopez in a restricted part of the base for which Lopez had not been granted access. Naval intelligence had identified Lopez as a spy for Fidel Castro's new Communist regime, but he'd been allowed to keep his bus-driving job on the base. When Jackson found him in the restricted area, an ammunition dump, he decided to remove him from the base and summoned another officer to assist.

The two escorted Lopez to a back gate but were unable to open its lock. Jackson sent the other officer for tools but managed to pry open the lock while he was gone. No sooner had he done so than Lopez lunged at him and tried to take his sidearm.

Lopez chose the wrong man to attack. If he thought he was quick enough to disarm the larger, seemingly slower-moving American, he was mistaken. Left alone with a suspected spy, Jackson had taken the precaution of having his pistol cocked and ready in its holster. He drew and fired in self-defense.

Lopez died instantly. And Jackson was about to make a decision that would change his life, putting him at odds with the highest levels of President John F. Kennedy's administration.

He hid the body.

"I hoped no one would find out," he said. "The world found out."

In line for a promotion to major at the time, a celebrated career all but assured, Jackson was arrested. The World War II hero was placed under guard and flown to Washington, D.C., where Marine Corps Commandant David Shoup, acting on orders from Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, forced him to leave the Marines. This rising star, with the nation's highest award for bravery in his service record, went to a job as a mail carrier in California. He was honorably discharged, but his status as one of the most admired men in the military passed like a Cuban breeze.

'A ONE-MAN MARINE CORPS'

The young man who found himself at the center of a potential international incident in Cold War Cuba could have been a poster child for the All-American Boy in Depression-era Ohio. A native of Cleveland, Jackson grew up in Canton, where he was a Boy Scout and the bugler in his troop. He was five merit badges shy of making Eagle Scout when his watchmaker father took a job in Seattle. The Jacksons had hardly settled there when another job offer took them to Portland, where Art attended high school, lettering in baseball, football and track.

"My mother cried after I graduated and left the country," he said.

He left for a job with a construction company in Alaska, then 17 years from statehood.

"I was a common laborer. They were building a Naval Air Station and extending the runways at Sitka. I'd hear the roar of the planes and watch those Marine Corsair pilots and think, 'Holy moly, that's what I want to do - fly a plane off a carrier.'"

He failed the eye examination for pilots, but the Marine Corps was happy to accept him for infantry training. His first encounter with the enemy was in Cape Gloucester, New Britain, where he received his first citation for bravery. The commendation from the commanding general of the First Marine Division recognized him for pulling a wounded private to safety "in the midst of tremendous fire from enemy pillboxes and with utter disregard for his own personal safety."

As bad as the war was in New Britain, it was but a warmup for Peleliu, an obscure Pacific Island and the scene of some of most vicious fighting of WWII. The two-month battle resulted in the highest U.S. casualty rate of any in the Pacific. The National Museum of the Marine Corps called it "the bitterest battle of the war for the Marines."

On Peleliu on Sept. 18, 1944, Pfc. Jackson saved his platoon from being pinned down and possibly wiped out by Japanese gunfire. A book on the battle of Peleliu described him as "nothing less than a one-man Marine Corps." His Medal of Honor citation credits him with proceeding ahead of American lines, defying heavy enemy barrages and singlehandedly wiping out 12 Japanese pillboxes, contributing "essentially to the complete annihilation of the enemy in the southern sector of the island." He was 19.

He said at the time that he didn't consider himself a hero. Asked seven decades later how he felt about killing 50 enemy soldiers, he paused for a long time.

"When I think about what they did to our guys. … "

It wasn't necessary to finish the sentence. Brutality against U.S. soldiers in the Pacific - torture, mutilations, beheadings - is well-documented.

Jackson was wounded on Peleliu and again in the Battle of Okinawa. He returned to the U.S. with two Purple Hearts and was honored at the White House, where President Harry Truman presented him with the Medal of Honor. He was congratulated by Marine Corps Commandant Alexander Vandegrift, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz and Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal; celebrated with aviation legend and fellow Medal of Honor recipient Jimmy Doolittle; and rode with celebrity columnist Walter Winchell in a New York City ticker-tape parade.

Given his choice of assignments, he chose China.

"The commandant looked at me like I was crazy," he said. "He thought after all that time and all that fighting, I'd want to go home. But I'd heard so many stories about China and China Marines that I wanted to go there and see it for myself."

He did. Jackson served in the Marine Corp for four years after the war and in 1949 joined the Army, which offered him a chance to earn a regular commission as an officer. (The battlefield commission he'd received in the Marine Corps was only effective in reserve units.) He spent a decade in the Army, serving in the U.S., Korea and Japan, and in 1959 rejoined the Marine Corps.

Why?

"Once a Marine, always a Marine," he said.

SILENT FROM SHAME

It was a decision he would second-guess after the fateful night in 1961, at the Cuban facility that confounds presidents to this day.

"He told me he could see how I shot Lopez," Jackson said of his dressing-down by then-Commandant of the Marine Corps David Shoup. "It was self-defense. He said my mistake was trying to cover it up."

But the decision wasn't that simple. Given the circumstances, it was one any soldier might have made. Jackson didn't explain it publicly, remaining silent and refusing requests for media interviews.

"I've never talked about what happened," he said. "I was ashamed of what I did."

To understand what happened, put yourself in his place. You're alone in the middle of the night with a suspected enemy spy, whom you shot to keep from taking your weapon and possibly killing you. It's five months after the Bay of Pigs, a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Tensions between the U.S. and Cuba - and its ally the Soviet Union - were at the boiling point. A Cuban national killed by an American hero would have been made to order for anti-American propaganda.

In retrospect, the right call might have been to report the shooting, claim self-defense and wait for the storm to blow over. Jackson never explained until now, at age 88, why he chose to hide the body and, with help from four other officers and several enlisted men, bury it on the base:

"My understanding of the treaty between Cuba and the U.S. was that any military person involved in a situation like that, Cuban or American, would be tried in a Cuban court," he said. "It was pretty obvious what the outcome would have been in Castro's Cuba at the time. I probably would have ended up at the Isle of Pines."

The Isle of Pines was the site of a Cuban prison. A 1969 letter to the president of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights described it as "a forsaken place of terror and barbarism," where 7,000 prisoners lived in quarters built for half that many.

Jackson's choice, as he saw it, was to report the killing and risk torture and possibly death on the Isle of Pines, or hide the body and hope it was never found. Word leaked, however, and he and three officers involved in the cover-up were forced out of the Marine Corps. A fourth was allowed to finish the two years he had remaining. The enlisted men were reassigned. All were told never to talk about what had happened.

Jackson requested a court-martial to try to clear his name, but the request was denied.

The story - minus his input - did make front pages. Columnist Jack Anderson accused the Defense Department of hushing up "one of the most explosive incidents of the long Cuban crisis … "

Not long after that, Jackson declined an invitation to a White House ceremony honoring Medal of Honor recipients, saying that his presence there might embarrass the president. Kennedy Press Secretary Pierre Salinger responded that the president respected his decision, adding that Jackson "would always be welcome at the White House."

The hero of Peleliu worked for a year as a mail carrier in San Jose, Calif., returned to the Army as an enlisted man, and then worked for the Veterans Administration in San Francisco before transferring to Boise in 1973. He's now retired and lives in East Boise, where he's known as a good neighbor, a good American and a modest recipient of the nation's highest award for valor.

"His character is impeccable," longtime neighbor Jean Patrick said. "He's a wonderful man of honor and integrity and a great patriot. He flies the U.S. flag and the Marine Corps flag every day."

More than half a century after the night that changed his life, I asked Jackson whether he'd have done anything differently at Guantanamo.

"Yes," he said. "I never should have let myself be left alone with a man like Lopez."

Does he wish he'd reported the shooting?

"No. It would have gone to a Cuban court. I probably wouldn't be here today."

Tim Woodward's column appears in the Life section every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardcolumn.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

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