A Memorial Day Ghost

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John C. Jarnagin

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The name “John C. Jarnagin” is chiseled in stone, alongside the names of nearly 600 other men, on a towering gray slab at World’s Fair Park. 

Like each and every one of those men, he gave his life in the greatest and most terrible conflict in human history (at least so far). Something like 50 million people died in a conflagration so great that it cleaved history itself in two along with the globe, setting the stage for the nightmares of terrorism and post-apocalyptic fantasies that characterize the world today.

World War II. The Second World War. The Great Patriotic War (Russia). The Good War (Studs Terkel). The Children’s Crusade (Kurt Vonnegut). 

John Clarence Jarnagin. 

He was my grandfather. I never knew him, but I at least know a little about who he was, where he came from and what he loved the most. 

Far more meaningful and tragic was the fact that he was my mother’s father. She never got to know him, even a little bit, because she was all of two years old when a torpedo explosion in the Pacific Ocean ended the life of the 28-year-old submariner. 

She’s pushing 80 now, but she still keeps the stuffed toy Dumbo he left behind for her during the only visit home the U.S. Navy allowed him to have. You might think that eight decades of life, two marriages, and the deaths of twin daughters as well as damn near every single person she grew up with should have wrung every last drop of sentimentality from her aged bones. But no — even today, whenever she talks about that fraying, flying elephant her voice catches and she begins to cry.

Her tears aren’t those of an old woman. Her sobs are those of a little girl who never knew her daddy and still can’t grasp why he’s never going to come through the front door and sweep her up in his arms, that can’t accept he’ll never be more than a memory passed down by others. A ghost.

Barbara Jarnagin, John’s wife, circa 1940

Most tragic of all, perhaps, was my grandmother, violently widowed in her early 20s with two young daughters to support in an era when women of her social class weren’t supposed to work outside the home. She knew him not as “grandfather” or “dad” but rather as “my love” and “husband.” 

She never stopped loving him. She never stopped hurting. She never stopped hating.

If you ever wanted to see firsthand what war does to those left behind, I recommend growing up in a family where all the women are haunted by the ghost of a man who died a quarter of a century before you were born.

You’ll also learn that he didn’t die in vain, if history is any guide. 

John, as far as I know, was a fairly typical Knoxville boy of that time and place. Born in 1917 or so to a young couple in the neighborhood of Lonsdale, his father was a chronic drunk and his mother died of tuberculosis when he was about ten years old. John and his two siblings were eventually taken in by some comparatively well-off cousins with the last name of Ramsey who went on to raise them as their own. 

John Jarnagin’s name can be found on the Knoxville World War II memorial at World’s Fair Park. Photo by JJ Stambaugh.

John didn’t receive a lot of schooling, as far as I can tell, although he did learn to read and write at a basic level. It was the Great Depression, after all, and these were working class Knoxvillians. Times were hard enough that he and his older brother, Henry, wound up working at Standard Knitting Mill with their adoptive uncle, James Ramsey, instead of going to high school.  Tragically, the eldest of the Jarnagin brothers didn’t see much more of life than this. Henry died at the age of 19 from appendicitis, a minor ailment nowadays but a painful death sentence in 1934. 

John was surely devastated by the loss of his brother, but he had one consolation: my grandmother, Barbara Rucker. 

 Barbara was a distant cousin of his and a socioeconomic step up the ladder or two from what he was used to, but these things clearly didn’t matter to the young lovers. They married in 1937 and soon welcomed their first daughter, Sammie, into the world. John got a better paying job and also joined the U.S. Navy Reserve, which brought in extra income and — as it did for many young men of that time — allowed him to carry his head just a little bit higher.

Of course, their lives of domestic bliss were about to be rudely stolen from them. On Dec. 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor and then followed up by launching both air and ground attacks on every Western imperial holding in the newly dubbed Pacific Theater. One by one, the territories of the Western powers fell, and it would take four years of intense, bloody combat to recover them.

My mother, Nickye Jarnagin, was conceived sometime in February of 1942. Not long afterward, John was called to duty and sent to California to begin training. He would only return home once before his death. 

John Jarnagin’s letters to the Ramseys from the Pacific theater.

Like most men in the armed services, John was a prolific if not particularly skillful writer. In a series of letters to his uncle (some were sent care of Standard Knitting Mill and others were sent straight to the Ramsey’s home at “Route 13 Fountain City”) he related the latest news of his health and vague, censor-proof descriptions of his current assignments. He was training to serve on a submarine, he wrote, and to that end he was learning the mechanical intricacies of torpedos.

In May 1944 he sent a letter to his uncle that began with the foreboding line: “I am in the Pacific war zone now, the fooling around is over for me. I only got two hours of sleep a night for the past seven days. I was on the submarine S-33 all last week, and boy I mean they sure kept me busy all the time.”

John had apparently just gotten word that an acquaintance from Knoxville had been killed in action, prompting him to pen a paragraph that would sound familiar to almost any American soldier in any war.

“We sure are loosing (sic) a lot of good boys in this war,” he wrote. “ I just hope,Washington doesn’t forget that when they start signing peace terms at the end of this war.”

He continued: “It is a honor for any man to die in uniform fighting for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and for life and liberty for all. It just gives you a wonderful feeling to see the American flag flying under fire of enemy ships. You then realize what this war is being fought for.”

John apologized for not being able to tell his uncle where he was because of secrecy rules and then shifted to more personal topics. He hoped to be granted leave in a few months, he said, hopefully before he went into combat.

“Please watch after my two babies for me, because I can’t now,” he concluded. “Maybe I will be able to repay you someday for doing this for me. Please tell everyone at the mill I said hello. Love, John C. Jarnagin.”

“My two babies” — Sammie and Nickye Jarnagin, circa 1943

John got his ticket home a couple of months later. While traveling from San Francisco to East Tennessee, he stopped off at a toy store and bought a stuffed Dumbo for his baby girl. He spent a couple of weeks with his young family before he was shipped back to the Pacific and his first combat posting: the U.S.S. Finback, a Gato-class diesel submarine that could carry its crew of up to 60 officers and men on patrols that lasted as long as 75 days. 

As far as I’ve been able to piece together, my grandfather served on the Finback during the sub’s last three wartime patrols. As a torpedoman, he personally helped “pull the trigger” that sent several Japanese ships to the bottom of the ocean. While patrolling off Chichi Jima, his crew rescued a young fighter pilot who had been shot down by the name of George H.W. Bush who would go on to become the 41st president of the United States.

I like to think he was brave. I like to think he never suffered doubts as to the justice of the cause. I like to think he continued to believe that, if he died fighting the Axis powers, his life would have had meaning.

John’s submarine docked at Pearl Harbor again in March 1945, this time for a major overhaul. The details of what happened next are a little vague, primarily because my grandmother had such a difficult time speaking of it, but apparently the sub was doing a training mission when one of the torpedoes malfunctioned. The sub managed to get back to Pearl Harbor safely,  but while John was working on the weapon an explosion tore through the compartment. He was reportedly decapitated by a piece of shrapnel, dying instantly, on June 13, 1945.

“Decapitated” is such an ugly word, isn’t it? Trust me — it’s especially ugly coming from the lips of an elderly woman who felt it was important that her grandson know the details of what happened. Barbara also did her best to instill in me a hatred of the Japanese people, all of whom she seemed to hold personally responsible for her bereavement. I resisted this, I’m glad to say, largely because my parents were ardent anti-racists who made sure her rage found no purchase. But I also can’t say I ever really blamed her for trying. It seems to me sometimes that pain and hate can get so bad that you have to try and pass them on to another person, like some virus born from the darkness of our hearts. If you’re morally lucky, you fail. 

Barbara lived a relatively long and rather remarkable life before dying in 1994 from emphysema. But this isn’t her story. In the weeks leading up to her death, she made sure that I understood that I was to inherit John’s Navy dress uniform along with various other items, including several letters that he wrote to her. I’ve refused to quote from those letters here — they are too personal, I feel. Too full of pain.

Too haunted.

A better writer than I would insert some moral here. Maybe they would say something profound about loss or hate or the futility of war. But I’m not that writer and those aren’t the things I’m thinking of right now, as the sun creeps over the horizon on this Memorial Day some 76 years after John C. Jarnagin, a 28-year-old boy from Knoxville, gave his life for his country.

Nickye Jarnagin as a child in the early 1950s

I’m thinking of my mother, who will surely do today what she does pretty much every year on Memorial Day. She’ll drive to Lynnhurst Cemetery with flowers and perhaps a little flag to place on John’s grave. She’ll pray as only the most devout Christians can, and when she goes home it will be to a stuffed toy that’s nearly as old as she is.

If you ever want to know what war does to people, don’t read a book or watch a documentary or take part in a re-enactment. Go to a cemetery or the war memorial downtown when there are no crowds or parades or speeches to distract you from what Memorial Day is really about. They’ll be there, alone, or perhaps in two or threes, trust me …. 

The haunted people. Look long and hard enough and you might just see their ghosts, reflected in their eyes. 

If you do, make sure you thank them.

John C. Jarnagin’s “dress blues” from World War II as they look today.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com 

Published on May 31, 2021