Mr. Fox was a seaman first class, and served stateside from 1944 through 1945 in Pearl Harbor.
John Fox celebrated his 102nd birthday this week with a cake decorated with palm trees and blue water.
One of the Toledo area’s oldest surviving World War II veterans, Mr. Fox of Sylvania now uses a wheelchair, and his memory has started to fade. But when asked about the nearly two years he spent at Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor, he smiled and said, “I remember when we were there. It’s a long, long time ago.”
Mr. Fox was one of the Navy’s older sailors when he enlisted March 1944, at age 31. He served in the American theater as a seaman first class, and emerged with a victory medal in December, 1945.
Linda Walczak, the younger of his two daughters, collected the black-and-white photographs her father sent home to his wife during his service. They are placed neatly in a U.S. Navy album, next to his discharge certificate and newspaper clippings about the war commemorations that followed.
According to her son, David Walczak, Mr. Fox began to speak of his experiences only when he got older, and even then he avoided much detail, as was typical for what Mr. Fox’s sister-in-law, Leona Fox, called a “tight-lipped” family. Neither he nor his two younger brothers, who also served, spoke much about wartime, she said.
Ms. Walczak recalled her father’s story of sleeping next to a torpedo on deck, and more troubling tales of men who died from being eaten by sharks or drinking salt water out of desperation.
“When it would turn into something gruesome, he’d say, ‘You don’t want to hear that,’ ” she said. In years past, he often spoke of his love of the ocean, quizzing his grandchildren about the water’s depth.
After he returned to Ohio, to his job as an equipment operator at the Packard Motor Car and later at Libby-Owens-Ford, he returned to the water in his cabin cruiser. Lake Erie became the destination of many weekend trips when Ms. Walczak was young.
Linda Walczak kept a photo album of her father’s time in the Navy, which included black-and-white photographs Mr. Fox sent home to his wife during his service.
Even when he had no boats to work on, he remained skilled with his hands, building wooden boxes in the garage and repairing his collection of pocket watches, she said.
Mr. Fox returned to Pearl Harbor once, on a trip organized by AAA Northwest Ohio.
In 2008, he and grandson David Walczak also went with Honor Flight of Northwest Ohio to Washington. Mr. Walczak recalled how the group clustered around the portion of the World War II Memorial dedicated to their state.
“He’s outlived all his friends,” Ms. Walczak said of her father.
He still has moments when he talks excitedly, about topics such as his childhood on a farm in Richfield Center, Ohio, where he worked the plow alongside his father. His memories of war are less clear, but his varied answers about what he did in the American theater reveal a quieter side of the fighting.
“We walked,” he said. “We looked at one another. We went to the cemetery, where somebody was laid out.”
Contact Maya Averbuch at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6522, or on Twitter @mayaaverbuch.
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