The beautiful life of Raider Jack DeShazer
By Tony Ahern
Jacob DeShazer, a 1931 Madras Union High School graduate whose story is among the greatest of the countless to come out of World War II, has died in Salem. He was 95.
After graduating from high school, "Jakie" -- as he was known around here -- spent nine years wheat farming until joining the Army in 1940.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, in one blow devastating the American Navy and asserting Japanese dominance in the Pacific. American pride and confidence were among the casualties.
During that dark, desperate winter, an American general, James Doolittle, hatched a plan. It was a supremely dangerous plan, but bold. If nothing else, it might restore some American confidence, might instill some doubt in the enemy. The plan called for a long-distance bombing raid on mainland Japan, to strike strategic targets.
The main problem with the plan: the planes wouldn't have enough fuel to return to the carrier. They'd have to land in clandestine locations in China, which was occupied by Japan, refuel, then make their way back to the American carrier in the Pacific.
The dangerous, some would say suicidal, mission, was all volunteer. Jacob DeShazer was among the volunteers.
On April 18, 1942, 16 planes took off from the USS Hornet. DeShazer was a bombardier in one. It was a 700-mile flight from ship to land. The raid was so unexpected by the Japanese that many people on the streets were waving to them as they flew low, certain they had to be Japanese planes. But they were there to bomb military installations, and they did. It was a clear day and as they sped off toward China, DeShazer could see smoke billowing from his target.
The first aspect of the mission had been completed. The next part, successfully refueling in China, would not be. The fuel didn't last and DeShazer and his mates had to bail out. DeShazer landed in a Chinese graveyard, and made his way to a temple and, exhausted, he fell asleep. The next morning, he was taken into custody by Japanese soldiers. He was now a prisoner of war.
For the next 40 months, the young man was tortured, starved, repeatedly threatened with death, and tortured some more. At first he was sentenced to death. In the early days of his capture, he'd seen the clothes of his fellow raiders, and figured they had been killed. His three comrades were, in fact, never seen again. Yet, for some reason, DeShazer's sentence was eventually changed to life in solitary confinement.
For 40 months, DeShazer was kept in a small cell. He was allowed out for only 10 minutes a day. He was routinely interrogated, threatened with death, and abused.
But while in solitary confinement, he was given one book -- the Bible. With nothing else to do in that tiny cell, the farmer from just north of Madras read it, and kept reading it. Confined to that cell, surrounded by and consumed by hatred, slowly a transformation took place. Jacob DeShazer became a different man.
"My hatred for the enemy nearly drove me crazy," DeShazer said during a 2001 interview, and noted in a March 18 story in the Salem Statesman Journal. "My thoughts turned toward what I had heard about Christianity changing hatred between human beings into real brotherly love."
DeShazer had no way of knowing that the fortunes of war were turning in America's favor, knew nothing of atomic bombs dropped on Japan. But in August of 1945, Americans parachuted into China and eventually rescued him.
In September, DeShazer returned to Madras, receiving a hero's welcome at a celebration at the town's USO building (located where the county annex now sits, off Sixth Street). The county judge, T.A. Power, gave him a Rolex watch as a token of the esteem in which his hometown held him.
The staff sergeant was very gracious and appreciative, but his calling was not to stay in Jefferson County. He had a burning desire to share his transformation, his Christian ideals, with the world. He enrolled at Seattle Pacific College and trained to become a missionary.
Those who know the DeShazer story certainly know the dramatic final twist. DeShazer married and indeed became a missionary. He determined there was but one place for him to go: Japan -- more specifically, to the same city which he'd dropped bombs upon in 1942, Nagoya.
In 1948, DeShazer returned to Japan and began an amazing three decades of missionary work. During that time, he and his wife Florence established 16 churches in Japan. He retired from missionary work in 1977, and the DeShazers moved to Salem.
Jake DeShazer lived a quiet life in retirement, though books and television accounts celebrated his moving story and inspiring life. In 2001, he was invited to Hawaii to watch a premiere viewing of the movie Pearl Harbor aboard a Navy ship moored at Pearl Harbor. In 2005 he was inducted into the Oregon Aviation Hall of Fame.
Last Saturday, on March 15, DeShazer passed away at a Salem assisted living facility.
Maybe there is no better time for Jake to leave this world than during this Easter season, a season of resurrection, of rebirth. I'd never met him, and couldn't come close to doing justice to his life in this column. But it's apparent that during his life Jake DeShazer possessed the best of man: utter bravery, tenacity and an unbeatable spirit, and eventually tremendous, compelling compassion to spread peace, brotherhood and Christianity to his fellow man. God had few better warriors.
Madras was fortunate to have played a small role in the DeShazer story, and we should remember and honor his life now and in the days and years to come.