By Sgt. Juan D. Alfonso
HILO, Hawaii – There are few times in our lives that we meet someone who truly inspires us to be better. They’re the different ones. Men and women who live their lives on their own terms; brash and stubborn, but wise and interesting. On June 11, I walked through the house of such a man. I met his wife, met his friends, saw how he lived. I felt changed and inspired to be better, not just as a Marine but on a much deeper and rarer level, as a man. My only regret was…. It was too late to meet him.
Retired Lt. Col. Jack Lewis died May 24 in his home after battling lung cancer. But as expected from an old jarhead, he was stubborn to the end and passed on his terms, joking until the end finally came.
“His friends used to call him and I told him ‘you know they’re praying for you,’” said Stephanie Lewis, his loving wife. “He’d just look at me and say ‘well tell them to cut it out.’”
He was 84 years old. His life was far from average, even by the Corps’ standards.
Born in Iowa, Nov. 19, 1924, Lewis’ family moved to Florida at the age of 2 and began his profession as a self proclaimed “amateur juvenile delinquent.” By the time he was 12, he got himself into enough trouble for a judge to “suggest” he should leave the state. He began to move around the country and published his first short story ‘The Cherokee Kid’s Last Stand’ at age 14.
He was a man of many careers.
Dec. 13, 1942, he enlisted in the Marine Corps at 18 serving during the tail end of World War II.
“He was a maverick, very ambitious, always looking for something new, and total Marine Corps,” said Ralph Austin, a retired master sergeant who served with Lewis, in a Los Angeles Times article.
After the war, Lewis attended the University of Iowa where he earned a degree in journalism. He returned to the Marine Corps in 1945 as a 2nd lieutenant in the reserves.
In 1949, while stationed on Camp Pendleton, Calif., Lewis served as a technical advisor for the original “Sands of Iwo Jima,” film where a mutual love for the military resulted in a lasting friendship with John Wayne.
Lewis began his screenwriting career in 1950, writing several Westerns but soon decided to return to active duty to serve in the Korean War with 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. Lewis served as a public information officer/ combat correspondent. He earned a Bronze Star Medal during this second tour for racing past his fellows Marines without concern for his wellbeing to ensure he could film a close-up view of Marine aircraft bombing enemy positions.
After the war, Lewis returned to Pendleton where he served as a company commander for 4th Marine Regiment. The Corps later reassigned him to, what was at the time, Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay, where he served as a public information officer.
His PIO duties led to working as a technical advisor to Director John Ford’s “Mr. Roberts.” Jack, being Jack, began his career as a stuntman while on set after volunteering to drive a motorcycle off a pier. He later appeared in another Ford film, “Sergeant Rutledge.”
Despite his love for the Corps, Lewis left as a captain in 1958 to pursue his career as a writer. In 1960 he opened a publishing company, manufacturing outdoor magazines. Despite continuing to write, he ran the company for 37 years, hiring mostly retired Marines with the condition that they become U.S. Marine Corps Combat Correspondent’s Association members.
Lewis’s life continued to be a balancing act. He divided his time between writing screen plays, writing for “Gun World” magazine, in addition to several other magazines, stunt work and then finally publishing his first novel in 1966… “Tell it to the Marines.”
It was from his first novel that I began to get a feel for his personality. The first words in his novel “Any similarity to persons, places, or incidents is highly plausible; only the names have been changed to avoid court-martial.”
Bold, daring, straight forward but ultimately funny; the novel serves as a pseudo-autobiography pertaining to his experiences in the Corps. The story’s interesting, full of the hard-nosed personalities others envision when they think about the inner-workings and relations of the Marine Corps, but ultimately humorous. Although, I feel some of the humor is lost on those who have never served with the Marines and some is meant only for those who served during that era.
Lewis returned to active duty under special orders in 1969 as a major with III Amphibious Corps in Vietnam, despite his retirement in 1964, according to his biography on the USMCCCA Website. He continued to write until the end of his days.
After 84 years, Lewis accomplished far too much in one lifetime to fit in one story, no matter how long, his books alone are a testament to that fact. He described himself as a fighter, drinker, stuntman, and writer. He fathered five children and lived to see eight of his grandchildren. Throughout his life he made many lasting contributions to the USMCCCA, serving as its president and financial backer during harder times.
He retired to Hilo, Hawaii, where he continued to write, found a new love and lived the rest of days in a small light-green house, most of which hung off the side of a small cliff, facing the ocean.
It was at his beautiful home, knowing the end was near, that he tied the knot with his wife Stephanie, a month before he passed.
As I said, I never had the opportunity to meet him, but I hope I can give an idea of what he meant to the people who did. I arrived at the Star of the Sea Church, a small but colorful building, with Gunnery Sgt. Arsenio Cortez, Marine Corps Base Hawaii public affairs chief, and Jack Paxton, USMCCCA’s executive director and Lewis’ friend.
I met his wife, who seemed to handle his death well, but her eyes were much sadder than her words. I met his friends, who’s name’s I can’t recall, but their personalities gave me an idea of the company Lewis liked to keep and the kind of man he was.
There were three of them, older men. The moment they saw me they started giving me a hard time, the same way most service members do to see if you can “hack it.” Rough guys, but the kind you could count on if you needed them.
Asking them about Lewis just turned into telling old stories about “Jack” always ending with “He was one helluva guy.” These men were too strong, too proud to cry or say they’d miss him. They mourned him the same way he would have mourned them, telling stories while having a beer with the guys. Those were the people Lewis called his friends.
During his eulogy, the smiling faces turned tearful, some unable to stay in the room where a photo of Lewis in his uniform and another riding a stunt horse he had trained were displayed next to his urn. The same room where Cortez presented Mrs. Lewis the colors Lewis had fought for on numerous occasions.
As Jack would have wanted, the funeral ended with a party, his friends and family celebrating his long life.
My companions and I didn’t stay, we went to his home. It was a small house, with an incredible view of volcanic rocks and the ocean so close it splashes against the southern end during a storm.
The walls were covered in old movie posters, mostly westerns; I could only assume he had a hand in each of them. There were stacks upon stacks of books he had written, but everything was neat and organized, as you’d expect from an old jarhead…he was squared away.
There was a small room with a bed, a guest room, but there was hardly anything in it. Just the same photo his wife provided for his funeral, his discharge papers and his commission as an officer in the Marine Corps Reserve.
The room he slept in was much the same, except the only thing I could find of his Marine days was a wooden placard with his name, rank and Marine Corps Reserve engraved.
It was on his night stand …he slept next to it every night.
The time had come to leave, but before I walked out I picked up a yellow book covered in plastic wrapping with several paper clips separating numerous pages into groups. On the cover was an illustration of a Marine officer with his hat tilted, cigarette in his mouth and two Asian women hanging all over him. It was “Tell it to the Marines” his first novel. I wanted to read it right then and there. I wanted to know a little more about him. I figured I could buy it once I got home.
Just as I was about to put it down, Ace, one Lewis’ friends, said “take it.” I was shocked at what he had said. It obviously wasn’t just another copy of the book, it was Lewis’ copy. Just when I was about to ask if he was sure about it, Ace smiled and said “he would have wanted to you to have it.” I like to think he meant, he would have wanted a Marine to have it.
As I left his home I thought about what I’d seen, the people I’d met and the things they said. I tried to sum up the experience on my trip back to Oahu, Paxton telling me old sea stories along the way, I felt humbled by the experience and could only echo the same words I had heard all day, “He was one helluva guy.”