TAMPA — In the summer of 1925, a woman put her 2-week old son in a shoebox and dropped him off with a neighbor because she couldn’t take care of him.
James Gleason has been born prematurely, said his daughter, Barbara Korchak.
“He wasn’t expected to live,” Korchak said.
But he did, and in summer 1943, he turned 18 during a bloody World War II battle on the island of New Georgia, where he was saving lives as a Navy combat corpsman assigned to a secret unit called the Marine Raiders.
Gleason earned the nickname “Doc” during his time with the Raiders. The first U.S. special operations forces, the Raiders were about 8,000 strong, hopping from island to island in the South Pacific, giving the vaunted forces of the Japanese empire their first taste of defeat on the ground.
Gleason, who moved to Clearwater in 1974, was believed to be the youngest of the Raiders, having joined them when he was 17. The things Gleason saw caused him lasting mental anguish. And it would be decades before his family knew the extent of what he experienced, after he wrote his account of the Raiders, “Real Blood! Real Guts!”
His legacy was so enduring that Marine Gen. Robert Neller invited Gleason to his change of command ceremony when he took over as commandant of the corps last year. As Gleason’s life drew to a close, Neller and Mark Clark, a retired major general who ran Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, were among many who stopped to pay their respects.
On Friday, Gleason died.
He was 90.
❖ ❖ ❖
Lyman and Minnie Gleason were in their 40s when the baby arrived at their doorstep in a shoebox, Korchak said.
James Gleason grew up near Youngstown, Ohio, and on his 17th birthday enlisted in the Navy.
“Everybody was real patriotic at that particular time,” Gleason said in an interview with the Tribune two years ago at his home in Tampa.
On Aug. 3, 1942, he was called up, and after boot camp, transferred to the Marines, who didn’t have their own medics or chaplains. He volunteered for a newly formed group called the Marine Raiders.
There were four Marine Raider battalions and two Raider regiments that saw action in the Pacific between 1942 and 1944 and were formed to conduct amphibious raids and guerrilla operations behind enemy lines.
The Raiders went on to participate in campaigns across the Pacific Ocean and earned more than 700 decorations, including seven Medals of Honor, before being disbanded.
Gleason had no idea what he was getting into when he volunteered to join the Raiders.
“I didn’t even know what the heck the Raiders were,” he said. “I volunteered because I wanted a change.”
He got it. And then some.
The battles of the Solomon Island chain were hell on Earth. In addition to a determined enemy, the Raiders had to contend with swarms of flies and mosquitoes, constant dampness, swamps, jungles and sharp coral that cut skin and caused infections.
Though they wreaked havoc on the enemy, the Raiders paid a heavy price.
By the time of the attack on Bairoko Harbor, on New Georgia Islands, the Raiders were so decimated they were able to muster up less than one full battalion of 900 to 950 men from the two full battalions they started with, Gleason said.
The battle to take the harbor began at 10 a.m., July 20, 1943, according to Gleason’s book, and continued all day.
“With nothing but guts and small infantry weapons, about 800 Raiders attacked the enemy force, who were well emplaced in a series of four parallel ridges with interlocking bunkers and cleverly concealed cross fire machine gun fire lanes,” Gleason wrote.
It also marked the first time the Navajo Code Talkers were used, Gleason wrote.
The enemy was driven back, but at a heavy cost, with more than 250 men killed or wounded and half the remaining men needed to take care of the survivors. Gleason was in the thick of it all, working with doctors and chaplains to save the wounded.
“We were pinned down under heavy fire at nightfall,” Gleason wrote. “At midnight, the Japanese staged one of their celebrated suicide bayonet charges, screaming like madmen.”
On July 23, the day Gleason turned 18, the Marines were ordered to retreat down a ridge even though he and others thought they were about to defeat the enemy.
“Now at age 18, the order to withdraw when we were 300 yards of victory at Bairoko was a bitter pill for everyone to swallow!” he wrote. “We Raiders contend that we would have taken Bairoko Harbor had we received the air and naval support we asked for.”
Gleason would be evacuated to Guadalcanal, but said he had few memories of what happened on his birthday.
Out of about 900 men, “I was one of about 120 or 130 to come down off the hill, with all the wounded and sick,” Gleason said in the interview.
He was sent to a hospital, where he was treated for gastritis and diarrhea, and it was there that he saved up pain medications and took them all at once.
He survived, but long before the medical community understood or even identified post traumatic stress disorder, Gleason was diagnosed with “hysteria” as a result of the horror he experienced. He said he struggled the rest of his life with guilt.
“I went 40 years, thinking I had been a coward, that I let my guys down,” Gleason said in an interview.
❖ ❖ ❖
After getting out of the hospital, Gleason returned to duty, serving aboard several ships, and left the service, only to return during the Korean War, where he “continued to help his Marines,” according to Mark Van Trees, who runs Support the Troops, an organization providing toiletries, snacks and other items to deployed troops.
When he got out of uniform for good, Gleason had an eclectic life.
He was a director of resort development for three firms, owned a bookstore in Virginia, and was a teacher at the College of William and Mary. He also worked as a health inspector for Trumbull County, Ohio. He was embraced by the Marine Raider community.
“His love for his fellow Raiders is manifested in his active role at every level with the Raiders Association,” Van Trees wrote in an obituary.
In 1967, Gleason married the former Nancy Myers, a widow with three daughters who turns 85 Tuesday. He adopted them all, said Barbara Korchak, 60, the middle sister between Marsha Bartholomew, 63, and Connie Robinson, 57.
The family moved to Clearwater and later to Tampa in the mid 1980s, and Gleason spent his last days in a Tampa assisted living facility.
“He didn’t feel worthy of acknowledgement or the label or image of a Marine,” Korchak said. “We didn’t find out until later what he had been through. But we didn’t care. We loved him.”
Gleason may not have felt worthy of praise, but it was readily offered.
“I met Doc Gleason and he is made of the right stuff — a true Fleet Marine,” said James Mattis, a retired Marine general and former commander of U.S. Central Command. “‘Doc,’ who represented all the character and Gung-Ho that have made our Navy Corpsmen brothers so highly respected in the macho Marine Corps. Doc was a great sailor, fine friend and a true role model for us all. We will miss him terribly.”
Gleason “was a true brother, friend and Raider to all who knew him,” Mark Clark wrote in an email to the Tribune. “His eyes would always get a spark in them when he would talk about the Raiders. That was a touchstone in life for him.”
One of Gleason’s happiest moments, Clark said, seemed to be the announcement that Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, or MARSOC would be adapting the Marine Raider name.
“He broke down at the announcement with his dream coming true.”
A funeral service for Gleason will be 2 p.m. May 5, at Oakwood Community Church, 11209 Casey Road in Tampa. He will be buried later at Arlington National Cemetery, Korchak said.
Twitter: [email protected]