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Jim Rucker

Jim Rucker

Navy Pharmacist’s Mate First Class

As told to Katie Hooper

Jim Rucker in high school

Jim Rucker in high school

The bell rang, I answered

I was born in 1921 and raised in Sacramento. I am one of four children, and we were all born at home. Dr. Poore, who lived next door, delivered us. There was a bell connected to the doctor’s house, and when my mother went into hard labor, she would ring and he would come right over.

My father died in 1933 when I was about 11 or 12. So it was up to my mother to raise us. She was quite a seamstress and went to work for a big store in Sacramento. My father’s last job was a custodian at a school and he told my older brother, David, how to do everything. So he inherited the job.

Looking for Adventure

Jim-2nd-from-left-w-mom-&-siblings

Jim (second from left) with mother and siblings

On December 7, 1941, I had just gotten out of church. I was young, 20 years old. Word of the Pearl Harbor attack spread like wildfire. I didn’t know it meant war. It took people a while to realize just how serious it was.

I was going to Sacramento State and majoring in pre-med, when the war broke out. We were a bunch of close kids in Sacramento. Several of us just couldn’t stand not being in the fray, so we all joined at the same time.

I enlisted on May 4, 1942, with a group of, I think, about seven or eight. We drove down to San Francisco to get sworn in. After that, we were under the control of the Navy, and they saw to it that we never strayed.

I’m sure some had conflicting feelings about going in, but I was looking forward to the experience. I had lived in Sacramento all my life and hadn’t traveled much. I was looking forward to the possibility of seeing new things, and I certainly did that. I had always been interested in travel and history when I was growing up, and that gave me the spark to really get in there and see what was going on.

They shipped us off to San Diego, where we did our boot camp training. I began as a hospital apprentice first class, which was an enlisted man but upgraded. I was a
pharmacist’s mate first class when I left the service.

Sacramento High School R.O.T.C. Jim is in the 2nd row, 2nd from left.

Sacramento High School R.O.T.C.; Jim is in the second row, second from left

They were looking for someone that was interested in working with dermatology in the hospital. We were getting men back from overseas that had come down with tropical diseases. The training and exposure to the different diseases I received in at the San Diego naval hospital was a real help when I went overseas.

 Draft call

After I put in about six months or so in the wards there, up came a draft call for men to go into the Second Marine Air Wing. All the medical personnel in the Marines actually were Navy. They sent us over to North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego Bay to train. We were told we’d be shipped overseas as soon as possible, but first we had to familiarize ourselves with the equipment we would take. So we got all that equipment together and then we started making crates for it.

Besides the field equipment that you have to use in medicine, I took care of the outfit’s laboratory. I guess the commander decided that I would do well in the lab with the training I had at college. It was a clinical set-up including microscopes, slides, and stains, which was packed in several crates. They also gave me quite a large book that I had to read, understand, and learn the Navy techniques.

They then put us on a ship made by Kaiser Aluminum. It was the maiden voyage for both the ship and crew.

Whiskey and martial law

The S.S. Walter Colton was a civilian Liberty ship carrying probably two battalions. All of those ships were armed with a 4-inch cannon that was aft on the tail end. Then they had gun tubs mounted up forward. They had 20 and 40 millimeter guns in them. We had two doctors and one dentist with us, and we took turns learning more about medical procedures in the field that later on became very useful.

Life aboard ship was cramped. You were down below decks most of the time when the weather was bad and that got very uncomfortable, because there were no rules against smoking below deck and the ship had very inadequate ventilation.

The ship’s crew somehow found out that the doctors’ and officers’ whiskey was stored in the forward holds. Crew members soon partook and became rather lax in performing their duties. They allowed salt water to get into the ships boilers which caused the boilers to fail so the ship was just wallowing in the sea.

When the commanding officer of the troops found out what had happened, they put the ship under martial law and mounted machine guns on the bridge so that anyone going in and out of the hold would be under observation.

About that time we got a submarine scare. It lasted for about an hour. “Now hear this,” the captain announced. “There is a possible submarine in the vicinity.” The Navy contingent aboard that was manning the cannons and machine guns with their helmets on. This went on until the sub threat ended and all clear was announced.

All in the family

We had a short R&R on the island of Espiritu Santo, in the New Hebrides group. From there we went to Guadalcanal, which U.S. forces had already invaded.

There were no ports. Everything was bombed out, so we anchored off shore and were taken in by landing craft. When I got there the landing strip, which we needed, was under construction, so our planes couldn’t get in for a while. Consequently, we underwent almost nightly bombing by the Japanese.

Ground fighting was still going on, but farther back in the jungle. We had to root the enemy out from the whole length of Guadalcanal. The Japanese were still bringing in new troops, because they knew if we got a foothold in these islands that it would be difficult to stop us. They were bringing them in by ship or barge.

They would come in at night along the coast and we didn’t have enough power at that time to entirely discourage them.

I was excited, because I had never seen or read anything about the jungles of the South Pacific. The area we were in was almost on the Equator, very hot and humid.
Nevertheless, we were actually looking forward to seeing more action.

They laid out a camp for us where we could get our food and take care of ourselves. That’s mainly what we did – rest up for what was coming. We stayed in the tents, because the mosquitoes were pretty bad. I think there were eight men per tent. We had very little fresh food and instead survived on prepackaged tins of different things like meat, vegetables, soup and cigarettes. But we did get real coffee. The officers had their mess and we enlisted men had ours.

We had little spare time, because when you have that many troops they’re either getting sick or hurting themselves in some way or another. You’re constantly trying to keep them on their feet. It became like a big family. We got to know them pretty well.

Occasionally, we’d think about getting some booze. We would get fruit, raisins, and things like this, and build a little still out in the jungle. Everyone tried to bring something that went into the pot. Some of those fellows from the south were very crafty because they were used to making their own moonshine.

You could almost smell it from a mile away because it was so oppressive. But it didn’t cost anything – and it was all in the family. The fermentation gave off a horrible smell and gave me headaches. So, I didn’t attend that often.

Homemade booze tent party. Jim is in the back row, 4th from right

Homemade booze tent party; Jim is in the back row, fourth from right

Rendova

After two months on Guadalcanal, we were told to get all our gear together and get ready to ship out in May of 1943. There was a lot more than medical stuff. There were parts of airplanes, steel landing mats, Jeeps, washing machines, freezers, and all sorts of stuff aboard our ship. There were two forward holds, and they were all filled with miscellaneous items that we thought we might use.

When we left, P38’s starting coming up against the Japanese at night. The planes landed on a bulldozed and crushed coral runway with dirt piled nearby for protection. This was also when radar was first coming on line, so we could find the Japanese.

We were bound for the island of Rendova, in the New Georgia group of the Solomons. When we got there, it was night and we had to stop offshore. There were many large and small ships there at that time, some firing on the island.

We lowered landing nets over the side of our ship to the Higgins boats below. Each Higgins was about 20 feet long and could hold about 20 men. The sea was running pretty good and the Higgins boats were moving in against the ship forward and backwards. We had never gone over the side of a ship before, but we climbed down the net in the dark and all you could feel was the netting.

We had helmets, side arms (45 caliber), and medical kits strapped on us. In the medical kits there was a first aid kit, a tourniquet, bandage – very simple things but very
important. We also had a couple days’ rations and a change of underwear. We had to climb down the netting and then jump when the Higgins was in position. Not only did the Higgins go forward and backwards and in and out, but they went up and down with the waves. Our timing was very important. It was quite thrilling, believe me. A lot of cursing was going on, because fingers were getting stepped on. Everything was hurry, hurry, hurry.

The Higgins couldn’t go all the way in because of the coral reefs. I know. I got wet, but we were all in the same boat. We had a few casualties – not because of the Japanese, but just from accidents that happened with that many men going in under those conditions.

It was just about dawn when we came ashore. We could see what was left of the landing area after it had been shelled by ships. We also saw the dead Japanese. They had been hiding up in the trees, shooting at the wave of invading troops that came before us. We never saw those American troops. They just hit and kept on moving. For a young person making that beachhead, the sight of the dead was gut-wrenching.

It wasn’t long before word of our landing got back to the Japanese command post, and bombers soon began coming over. The bombing continued off and on for several days. Another fellow and I went down to the beach and we were looking out to the large landing craft that brought us in. Well, we saw these planes coming and ducked for cover. The first bomb exploded in the water between our ship and where we were taking cover, the next exploded right beyond that, and the next went right into where they had piled the men’s sea bags. No one got hit or hurt – just scared.

We had brought in and set up a battery of 105 cannons, each with a range of several miles or more. We were shelling the island of New Georgia, which was about five miles away. We sought out an elevated place where we could get a commanding view of what was in front of us. It proved almost to our undoing, because Japanese dive bombers targeted us and we had to take shelter again.

A few days later we were on a knoll that was relatively bare. We were quite surprised when a flight of B24s, passed over us very low. Their bomb bays were open and we could look up and see the bombs in their racks. They were on their way to New Georgia, but we didn’t know that at the time. A battery of 155s and two 105s were also being fired at New Georgia, which would eventually be our new home.

Runaway pig

On Rendova, we encountered what was left of a French plantation, which was pretty well decimated by the early fighting. We later found out that there was a little French restaurant on the premises that belonged to the operator of the plantation.

Jim in Solomon Islands in 1943

Jim in Solomon Islands in 1943

Once we were approaching his house when our van hit a huge pig that had come out from the underbrush. . The pig was knocked unconscious, so we jumped out and finished the job. We then strapped it onto the bumper of the van and continued on to the Frenchmen’s house. He was so pleased and excited that we were giving him the pig that he fed all of us for free.

Jungle pharmacy

We had our own little pharmacy set up, in a tent stocked with medications that didn’t have to be refrigerated because they weren’t that fragile.

Once we had trouble with a couple of Marines that were visiting the pharmacy at night. They were after caffeine, which they hoped to use to produce tremors. This almost duplicated shell shock, which could get them out of the service.

Two pharmacist mates were even stealing caffeine and selling it. A couple of our medical men stationed themselves at the back of the tent following the thefts. And the next time the thieves came after the caffeine, they were caught.

When I was working the pharmacy on Rendova, word came down to abandon all of our morphine syrettes, which were malleable metal containers which could be used with a needle for injection. The morphine tartrate in them was to be replaced by morphine sulfate, a more effective product. We put the syrettes in a footlocker, brought it out into the bay in a Higgins, and dumped them out.

The syrettes weren’t very complicated. Marines could just roll up their sleeves and inject themselves. They tried to wait for the pharmacists but often the troops would be under shell fire or bombing and we couldn’t get to them right away. With the syrettes, troops could give themselves some relief of the pain.

We had a dentist, a very fine, upscale dentist. I didn’t lose any teeth while I was out there and a dental technician working with him cleaned my teeth. He used a foot pedal to power the dental tools.

One night I was on duty in the sick bay and some of the troops brought in this black American serviceman. He had been drinking and his arm had been sliced open in a fight. I called the medical officer and told him what happened. He asked me if I could handle it, and I said that he was going to need some sutures. He asked me if I wanted to try it and I said yes.

He was the first person I had ever stitched up. He was so intoxicated that when we laid him down, he just went to sleep. I didn’t have to use any painkillers on him, I just started suturing. I began at the top of his arm, which didn’t look very good, but I closed the wound so I didn’t go back and redo it. By the time I got to the bottom of his arm, I was doing pretty well.

Warm bread and seasickness

After about two weeks on Rendova, we boarded ship. We set sail fairly late in the day aboard a World War I destroyer.

We had taken out two of the original four boilers, but accommodations on board were still very tight. You could see water vapor that formed on the metal of the siding where they took out the two boilers and you could almost push the plates in and out because of their age.

It later became quite stormy. When the destroyer was rolling, some of the fellows got kind of sick, to put it mildly.

They were sleeping all over the ship, but the ones that were outside were not exposed to the vomit.

No one got washed over, even though the two landing barges aboard were taking on water because they were leaning so much.

I went up on deck after treating some of the fellows for seasickness. I went by the galley and I could smell this warm bread baking for the ship’s crew and, believe me, that was good.

We played poker on the ship. We didn’t have much money, so we used our cigarettes as chips or whatever we had in our pockets. By the time we were done, we had huge piles of tobacco in front of us.

We arrived at Auckland, New Zealand for two weeks rest. We were kept busy during the days to keep us out of mischief, but the nights were our own and we had fun.

We went to town and shared the time with the ladies there. We went to USO dances, where they had good coffee and doughnuts.

Jim in pharmacy tent. Auckland, New Zealand

Jim in pharmacy tent, Auckland, New Zealand

Bombs and false teeth

In August of 1943, we then continued to New Georgia, where we landed without casualties. Our air strikes were quite heavy, and the idea was to make it possible for our troops to land on an island fortified by the Japanese.

New Georgia was much sought after because the Japanese had bulldozed out a crushed coral landing strip and had left in such a hurry that all their heavy equipment was still there. As it turned, there wasn’t much left of the landing strip that we were after.

U.S. forces bombed and shelled the Japanese on New Georgia from the ships and the air, then ground forces came in and drove the Japanese deeper into the jungle. Fierce fighting helped win the island from the Japanese. Our bombers came both from Guadalcanal and from aircraft carriers offshore.

Most of the retaliatory strikes from the Japanese occurred at night time. One was memorable: We had a Marine general named Francis Mulcahy stationed at our camp. Several times each night the Marines were cautioned not to expose any light that the Japanese could use to pinpoint their bombing. The general had a very fortified residence he had built for himself, mainly out of coconut logs. One night he had been celebrating with his staff. When the party was over, he went out to his veranda with a flashlight to find his false teeth. The Marines all let him have it: “Turn out the light,” they shouted.

New Georgia Island 1943, Jim on right

New Georgia Island 1943, Jim on right

The next morning the general lined up all the Marines and told them that the Japanese were not after our camp, but after the airport.

Soon after that, a flight of Japanese bombers came over at night time and bombed right through our camp. One bomb struck about 500 feet from his dwelling. The bomb had gone through two or more coconut trees, which had somehow disarmed it, and plunged deep into the ground.

The next morning, the general was rather alarmed by this. He ordered the 500-pound bomb dug up and removed. Needless to say, we heard no more about night partying or recriminations.

We were always on guard, because you never knew whether the Japanese would bring in more troops during the night or if you were going to undergo another bombing.
But there wasn’t any really serious fear, as there just wasn’t that much enemy activity. The Japanese didn’t expose themselves, but sought shelter immediately once on the island.

A lab tech’s life for me

On May 3, 1944, we boarded another ship, the SS President Polk, for San Francisco.
We left New Georgia and went back to Noumea, Fiji, which had been our first stop leaving San Francisco on our way to Guadalcanal. There we were told to get our gear together and that we had enough time and points that we could leave the Pacific.
We boarded another American President Line ship, and two weeks later we were sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge and into San Francisco. The trip had taken two weeks rather than the usual month.

We were assigned to Camp Miramar, in the San Diego area. Because of my previous training and laboratory experience, I taught a class in laboratory technology, for 16 months. On Sept. 27, 1945, I had earned enough points to leave the service and was discharged at Camp Shoemaker, near Dublin.

My older brother, David, got basic air military training for glider pilots as a civilian but they discontinued gliders for his outfit. So he joined the U.S. Army Air Corp as a radio operator. In fact David grew up as a radio operator. He had his own room full of radio gear on the back porch of our Sacramento home. He built all his own equipment, believe it or not, and he almost got killed when he put a screwdriver in the wrong place and the jolt just knocked him all the way across the room. But he was a great operator and talked to hams all over the world. After the war David worked for the post office in Sacramento. He died in 1998.

My sister, Jessie, was the second oldest. She was a very talented lady, winning prizes for violin, oil painting, cooking, and home decorating. She got married at 26, but a brain tumor killed her a year later.

Next born was my brother, Jack, who was five years older than me. He was mayor of Sonora twice in the 1990s and served 12 years on the City Council. He died in 2007 at age 90.

Jim working in a Sonora area hospital

Jim working at Sonora hospital

Life after the Navy

I didn’t get enough schooling to become a physician, but I did become a registered lab tech and also a radiology technician.

When I got out of the service I was looking for work. I took a state job in Sacramento as a lab technician in bacteriology. The farmers brought in their sick animals to the state veterinarians, the vets put the animals to sleep, and then we had to find out what the herd’s problem was. My job was to isolate the bacterium that was causing the sickness. Within five years I had reached the top of my pay scale.

One evening my brother, Jack, called me from Sonora, told me he was getting tired of putting in 100 hours a week at the hospital and asked if I was willing to help.

I liked what I heard, so in 1951 I put our house up for sale and took my wife and our two children to Sonora. I liked everything about it. I put in for a State of California Licensing Bureau and studied for the lab tech exam and passed it, then I did the same thing in X-ray and passed it.

Jack was also a lab and X-ray technician. He also was a good pilot, had his own airplane. When we needed blood in a hurry, he would fly down to Stockton and get it.

Sometimes I would go with him. He taught me the rudiments of flying, which I appreciated. We worked pretty much as a team after that. We worked at the old Columbia Way Hospital, the old Sonora Hospital, and Tuolumne General Hospital.

There was a lot of industry up here, with dams and other major projects being built. Injuries on those jobs and, on weekends, from skiing and tobogganing accidents, kept us busy.

Jim and Gloria Rucker with Nessie in 2010

Jim and Gloria Rucker with Nessie in 2010

Myself and loved ones

My first wife, Josephine, was in the service. We had four children named Terry, Diane, Tim, and Kevin.

My present wife, Gloria, and I were married in 1966 in Hawaii.

I was a Rotarian, charter member of Antique Auto, Horseless Carriage, and Sonora Smoke Polers. I have enjoyed wood carving, hunting, and fishing.

I am currently a volunteer at the Veterans Museum in Sonora.

Looking back, I am proud of our country’s military history and I am honored to have been a part of it.

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