A BIOGRAPHY IN MEMORY OF
JOHN F. VERNON, Ltjg., U. S. NAVY
John Florimond Vernon was born October 16, 1907 in Columbus, Ohio. He joined the United States Navy on July 29, 1927 and was in Hospital Training by September of 1927. His field was pharmacy and by December of 1928 he became a pharmacist’s mate, third class.
John greatly enjoyed traveling and wrote to his parents and sister describing the Caribbean, the Panama Canal, southern California, the Hawaiian Islands, and other ports he visited. Souvenirs and photos of these places were kept in scrapbooks and boxes. He was on the USS West Virginia from July 30, 1931 to September 19, 1931.
A confirmed bachelor, John was in the Navy for 12 years and was stationed at the Naval Medical Supply Depot, Brooklyn, NY when he met the love of his life, Gladys Kennedy.
Her brother was a Navy Shipyard worker and John boarded with him and his wife. When the younger sister came from South Carolina to visit her brother, it was literally love at first sight. They were married in September of 1939. The only time they were ever apart was during his years as a Japanese POW.
A daughter was born in July of 1940 and in October of that year John was sent to Pearl Harbor. His wife and daughter followed in December. At this time he was assigned to the USS William B. Preston. All were together in Honolulu until he was sent to the Philippines in September of 1941. The family returned to the States and did not see him again until the autumn of 1945.
John was assigned to the Naval Hospital, Canacao, P.I., arriving in September 1941. He liked the Philippine Islands
and its people and sent gifts to his family. He admired the work of a woodcarver and ordered a teak storage chest, elaborately carved, to grace his future home. Unfortunately, the Japanese had other plans, both for sailors and woodcarvers and for all the other gentle people John knew and respected there.
On January 2, 1942 John Vernon, now a Pharmacist’s Mate First Class, was reported missing due to the capture of Manila. His family did not know whether he was alive or dead for a long period of time. Gladys wrote many letters to the War Department and the Navy Department asking for information, but there was none.
John was taken to the Pasay Elementary School, where he remained from March 23, 1942 to May 30, 1942, when he was transferred to Bilibid Prison. While imprisoned at Pasay Elementary School, he finished all requirements and was promoted to Chief Pharmacist’s Mate. Due to government regulations, this promotion was not recognized and was later given the date of February 16, 1943.
John worked in the pharmacy of the prison hospital. He developed medicines from crude drugs to help alleviate other’s suffering, sometimes working late at night. He told how some of the men contributed their Red Cross raisins when they learned he was making raisin wine for the Chaplin to use for Communion.
He departed from Bilibid December 13, 1944 aboard the Oryoku Maru, among a draft of 1,619 prisoners enroute to Japan. The ship was bombed by the American forces. Until this time he had managed to keep certain family mementoes: photos, letters, and a pair of baby shoes outgrown by his little daughter, hidden. As he struggled to keep afloat with other survivors in the sea, he watched the little shoes bobbing away. Two water-stained photos, which he managed to keep throughout the rest of his captivity, still survive in remarkably good condition.
Click here to see these wonderful photos!
John and others were recaptured and placed aboard the Enoura Maru, which was torpedoed. Loaded onto the Brazil Maru, they arrived in Moji, Japan and some, including John, were sent to Fukuoka Prison Camp #17, arriving January 29, 1945. Of the 1,619 prisoners on the Oryoku Maru, only 271 survived to land at Moji. He remained in this camp until Liberation, September 13, 1945.
During his stay at Fukuoka #17, he worked as a slave laborer in the coalmine. Food supplies were scarce and John said that he wanted to be on KP as it meant scraping the burnt rice from the bottom of the cooking pot, resulting in a few extra grains. At one point, he was somehow designated spokesman for the prisoners to beg extra rations from the guards, and was bayoneted for his trouble. John kept a list, on tiny scraps of paper and written in very tiny letters, of foods. He noted every food he had ever eaten or heard of.
Bugs added an additional daily and nightly torture. Tropical insects were everywhere, and inescapable. John suffered from malnutrition and disease, as did the rest of the captives. Communication with family was non-existent at first, but eventually the family received a letter from the Bureau of Navy Personnel dated July 13, 1945. It told that among the letters the Army had found in the Japanese files on Corregidor, there was one from John F. Vernon to his family. It was a simple statement dated January 21, 1944, asserting that he was alive and a captive, and that it was his first communication outside the prison in two years. There was also a brief, personal letter attached, naming family members so that the family could know it really was from him. Later, the family received notes from radio operators who picked up messages over short-wave radio. The POW notes consisted of a check-off list and a very short personal message. These were heavily censored. After July of 1944, Gladys was able to write to him, following the strict form for POW letters, which were censored by both the Americans and Japanese.
John Vernon was liberated September 13, 1945 and was transferred to Oakland, California, via the USS Rixey and the USS Catron. He arrived October 20, 1945. He weighed 96 pounds. He was taken to the Naval Hospital in Oakland, California, where he remained for treatment until April 24, 1946. At this time he was discharged from treatment and transferred to staff for duty. John was then appointed as Ensign MSC, March 15, 1945. He was transferred to the Naval Medical Supply Depot, Oakland, California, on June 11, 1946. The family located to Concord, California while he was stationed at the Supply Depot. In November 1946 a second daughter was born. One of the first things John did after establishing their first “real” home was to teach Gladys how to cook rice properly--the way he had eaten it for the last four years. Rice was always a standard, basic food in their home.
On March 15, 1948, John was appointed as Lieutenant, jg, MSC. On the 18th. of August, 1949, he was transferred to the Fleet Reserve, Class F6. John loved the Navy and was an enthusiastic and active member of the Fleet Reserve.
John F. Vernon was awarded a Good Conduct Medal March 15, 1932 and a Good Conduct Pin January 10, 1938. He was authorized to wear the Army Distinguished Unit Badge for service in defense of the Philippines along with the following campaign ribbons:
American Defense Service Ribbon with 1 bronze star
Good Conduct ribbon with 3 stars
WWII Victory Ribbon
Asiatic-Pacific Area Campaign Ribbon with 1 star
Philippine Defense Ribbon with 1 star
The Purple Heart
World War II and his POW experiences could not kill John’s zest for life, his curiosity and love of learning, nor his sense of humor. In November of 1949 John moved his family to Paradise, California and started a chicken ranch selling eggs as an independent rancher. He worked part-time as an assistant to a civil engineer doing land leveling, soil percolation tests, and general surveying. The chicken ranch was sold in November of 1958 and the family moved to the downtown area of Paradise.
John had always loved books and about 1965 he started a used book business, continuing to work part-time for the civil engineer. He realized a long-time dream of visiting the Circus Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. He expanded his love of the circus by becoming an active fan, wanting to start a local “Tent”, the circus buff’s organization.
John and Gladys enjoyed travel and put many miles on his bright orange and white VW camper van. John had a large stereo system in his home and liked to play classical music, Broadway shows, and other types of contemporary music at a very loud volume, using 33-1/3 LPs and reel-to-reel tapes. He had joined the Masonic Lodge in the early years of his Navy career and belonged to several affiliated groups.
Early in 1976, John Vernon was diagnosed with terminal cancer of the bile duct. He passed away August 24, 1976 at Beale AFB Hospital, leaving behind his devoted wife, his sister, two daughters, two sons-in-law and three granddaughters.
Always a quiet and private man, John did not discuss his POW years with his family very much—just little mentions now and then. One of his sons-in-law was a Navy vet and was very interested in and curious about those “lost years”. He managed to have some informative sessions with John. The information contained in this biography is partly from these private talks and also from stories remembered by other family members. John kept scrapbooks and collections of his pre-war Navy years and correspondence and Naval and other personal records. These have furnished additional material. John’s mother and Gladys kept a collection of newspaper articles from 1942 until liberation, which were also very informative.
There are some excellent websites about the Hell Ships and Japanese prison camps, and they have been useful in assembling facts and figures relating to this terrible time in our history.