Navy man earns battle stars, finds brother during WWII

Damascus resident Jim Bean not once, but twice, risked his life putting out fires from kamikaze planes that threatened to destroy his Navy ship, the USS Alpine APA-92, during World War II.

His heroics earned him five battle stars, commendations and a letter of praise from President Harry S. Truman.

Jim, 90, downplays it all. “Just a form letter,” Jim says, referring to the latter.As Veterans Day approaches, Jim Bean said he doesn't do much to mark the occasion. But he often thinks of his buddies who died fighting in WWII. 'I haven't forgotten,' he said. OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK

But the most remarkable moment in his military service has nothing to do with combat. He reunited with his brother, who he’d been separated from at birth, while anchored in the Marshall Islands.

Spend an afternoon with Jim, and he’ll tell you all about it, with a twinge of Southern drawl from his recliner in his split-level home.

The view out his picture window includes that of an American flag waving in the breeze. A cardboard cutout of John Wayne stands sentinel behind his recliner, a gift from a daughter-in-law.

Born James Odell Bean in Booneville, Ark., in 1922, his mother died when he was 2 months old because of complications from his delivery. She knew she was dying and asked her close friend, who happened to be her midwife, to raise the baby.

“My father was just about beside himself at the time,” Jim says. Overcome with grief and overwhelmed by the prospect of bringing up a baby in addition to the couple’s 3-year-old son Claude Ernest Jr., his father agreed to let the midwife raise the baby.

His foster mother, “Wid” Parks, wanted to take in the older boy, too, but her husband wouldn’t allow it. Terrified that Jim’s father would change his mind and take the baby back, she moved west with the baby, her 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son.

One day, her husband made the mistake of shoving her into a storage trunk. She reached for a sweet potato that had tumbled out of the truck, threw it at the man and knocked him out cold. When he came to, she kicked him out and divorced him.

Jim grew up working on ranches alongside his mom, a cook, in Oklahoma and New Mexico before landing in Lubbock, Texas. As the Great Depression took hold, his mom got a job making $35 a month for the Work Progress Administration.

They lived in a tent while Jim attended high school, where he discovered a talent for woodworking. During his senior year of high school, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. After graduation, he wanted to sign up for the Air Force, but he was 17 and needed parental approval.

“ ‘I’m not signing your death warrant,’ ” he recalls his mom as saying.

Instead, he built her a two-bedroom house to replace the tent they lived in, and worked for two years at a company making doors, windows, moldings and cabinets.

Then, in 1943, he was drafted into the Navy.

The military life

Basic training took him to San Diego for about six months before he was transferred to Portland and assigned to an attack transport called the USS Alpine APA-92. Jim Bean goes through his ship's yearbook from WWII. The vessel he served on is shown on the open page. OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK

The ship was nearly 500 feet long with room for 2,000 soldiers, 20 36-foot-long boats used to transport soldiers to dry land for battle, as well as four 50-foot water crafts strong enough to carry a tank.

“All you see on TV is ‘Normandy, Normandy, Normandy,’ ” Jim says. “I went through five of those.”

He was part of invasions in Guam, Leyte in the Philippines and Okinawa, Japan.

In Leyte, kamikazes attacked the ship on Nov. 18, 1943. When a plane crashed into the ship and burst into flames, Jim and two buddies extinguished the fire.

“I figured, hell, that’s our job,” Jim says.

Besides, the ship was loaded with ammunition. If they hadn’t gotten that fire under control, the whole ship would have exploded.

The plane hit the ship’s side, taking out a transport boat containing three men who’d just climbed in preparing to launch.

“Never found a piece of them,” Jim says.This old photo shows Jim Bean while serving in the South Pacific. He is the sailor in the center, grasping his belt. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

In Okinawa, on April 1, 1944, another kamikaze bombed the main deck before the plane crashed into the ship. Jim was between 20 feet and 30 feet from where the plane hit, but a huge gun turret shielded him from the spraying gasoline, shrapnel and flames.

He vividly remembers the men around him catching on fire and using his jacket to smother the flames engulfing one man. Their screams still ring in his ears.

Then Jim turned his attention to fighting the fire. He grabbed a portable pump while another man commandeered a boat — all the boats had been destroyed or deployed.

They ordered the boat’s pilot to steer over to the hole in the Alpine’s bow where the fire was. But as Jim began to douse the flames, a wave crashed on top of the pump, flooding the motor. The same thing happened three more times before they gave up.

“I remember we told the guy to back the boat away from the ship and he asked why,” Jim says. “ ‘Well, because there’s tons of TNT on that ship,’ we told him. He turned as white as a sheet. He was wishing he wasn’t there.”

Eventually a fireboat came to battle the flames. As the men on his boat climbed aboard the fireboat, Jim struggled.

With no strength left, he was on the verge of passing out. He couldn’t make it to the top of the cargo net they had to climb to board the boat. Luckily, some men grabbed him and dragged Jim onboard.

Turned out, he wasn’t exhausted. He had carbon monoxide poisoning from operating that portable pump.

The Alpine spent a couple months in a Seattle drydock being repaired. Then they shipped out again, headed for Japan.

“We were told we would lose 1 million men,” in the upcoming battle, Jim says. On Aug. 9, the ship dropped anchor at Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands.

He had the day off and wanted to take a nap. So he posted a “Keep Out” sign in front of the woodshop where he worked, settled into a lounge chair and drifted off the sleep.

“Soldier, can’t you read?” he heard a man ask.

“Yeah, but I want to see that fellow,” another man replied. “I think he’s my brother.”

Through an aunt, Jim and his brother had discovered that they were both in the Navy and during their time overseas wrote letters to each other. But they’d never met until that moment.

“Total stranger, full-blood brother,” Jim says.

Within days, the brothers got news that the United States had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. By Aug. 15, Japan announced its surrender.

After the war

Jim entered the Navy weighing 152 pounds. He left weighing 190 pounds and standing half-an-inch shy of 6 feet tall. A group photo of Jim’s division in the ship’s yearbook shows him squinting in the sun’s glare. He’s grinning, his white sailor’s cap tipped downward resting just above his eyebrow. His meaty arm is bent, his hand holding onto his belt buckle.

The man had swagger.

After the war, he returned to Portland, partly because he was impressed by how friendly people were. He met a tiny young woman named Marie and got married. Jim’s brother, who also moved to Portland after the war, is in their wedding pictures.Jim and Marie Bean's wedding photo shows Jim's brother, Claude Ernest Bean, second from right. The two never knew one another until they met while in the Navy, docked at a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean during WWII. On the far right is Marie's brother, and on the far left, is his girlfriend. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Jim adopted Marie’s daughter, Donna, and son, Marty, from a prior marriage. The couple also had two more sons.

Son Marty went on to join the Navy. Counting Marie’s father, who served in the Navy during World War I, the family boasts three generations of navymen.

Jim and his brother, C.E. as he was called, remained close. But they never shared the bond that comes from growing up together and being raised by the same parents.

They did, however, share a talent for woodworking. C.E. specialized in cabinets while Jim focused on structures — houses, apartments and other buildings.

Jim retired long ago from a career as a home builder, but still spends many hours in his woodshop.

He also still carries a time-worn card, its edges crumbling, in his wallet.

Identification, he calls it.

The card certifies his Navy service from May 19, 1943, to March 9, 1946.

For years, decades even, Jim never talked about the war. But with more and more World War II vets dying — out of 16 million who served, about 1 million are still alive and an estimated 1,000 die every day — he knows it’s important to pass their stories on.

“It made me love life, love to be alive,” he says of being in the war. “I think a lot about my buddies that have been killed. I haven’t forgotten.”

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