Eddie Sherman

Eddie Sherman
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Wednesday - August 04, 2005
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Col. John Bates

THE NEW director of the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center doesn’t look or act like a military hero. Col. John Bates, of average height, wiry-thin, creased face, graying hair, sunny disposition, usually smiling, is a Marine legend. That his body is still in one piece and that he is still alive is a miracle. Bates’ chest was blasted by machine-gun fire in Vietnam. He was wearing a flak jacket which at the time was lined with fiberglass plates. The shots sent the fibers into his chest, destroying most of his right lung. Months later a hand grenade tore his knee to pieces. These experiences seem insignificant when compared to the time Bates fell into a punji stake trap. That’s a hole with a bunch of sharp wooden stakes at the bottom of it. His left foot became impaled by a long, sharp bamboo stake smeared with water-buffalo manure to maximize infection. All this earned him three Purple Hearts. To this day Bates can’t remember how he pulled his foot out of that stake. “It’s kind of like trying to tell somebody what sex is like without ever having experienced it,” he smiles … After being banged up like this the Marines medically retired him. Being put out to pasture was difficult to accept for Bates. He re-applied to the Marines over and over, but was rejected six times. Meanwhile, he kept busy going to school. After earning a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees during his seven-year military hiatus, then 30-year-old Bates was finally accepted back in the Marines and made a second lieutenant. His perseverance prevailed … Despite all the various injuries, Bates later became known for his dedication to running. His first marathon was in 1997. Since, he’s competed in various “Ironman” triathlons including a 146-mile run from Death Valley to Mount Whitney in California …

Of all the drama in Bates’ life, one that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up was an e-mail message from a young man in New Hampshire asking if he ever was stationed in Vietnam “If so,” said the message, “I may have something of yours.” Turned out it was a lost cigarette lighter Bates purchased and had engraved during the war. Eric Sletten, a student at Skidmore College, was traveling with friends in Vietnam. At an outdoor bazaar Sletten spotted a table full of lighters. Something about that old lighter just stood out, and the young man purchased it. Sletten was a history major whose father served in Vietnam as a sailor. When he returned to New Hampshire after studying abroad, he tucked the lighter in a drawer and forgot about it. Much later, cleaning out that drawer, he came across the lighter again. Looking at it more carefully, Sletten was able to read the fading name and date Bates had engraved. Curious, he decided to see if he could track down the original owner. He checked lists of soldiers killed during Vietnam. Then started looking elsewhere. Eventually, “detective” Sletten tracked Bates down. Bates returned the favor by inviting Sletten to a Marine Corps Ball … Bates clearly remembers the date he had it engraved — Jan. 22, 1967. It was on that date that Bates, recovering from a gunshot wound, simply walked out of a military hospital and rejoined his unit in the field. “I just got fed up sweeping and mopping floors in the hospital.” He borrowed utility pants, combat boots, a loose-fitting hospital gown and walked out, found a helicopter crew and “hitchhiked” back to his men. While waiting for his ride, he bought that lighter and had it engraved … Col. Bates ended his long Marine career by parachuting into his retirement ceremonies

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