During the Veterans Day ceremony Nov. 11 John Pass, 90, of Placerville will present his grandson, Navy Lt. Cmdr. (Ret.) Jacob Parsons with the Veteran of the Year award.
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Pass will stand valiantly in patriotic and familial pride on feet that once stood on Monte Cassino in Italy, where he fought in the 3rd Infantry Division under Gen. Martin Clark in 1945.
Those feet that were entrenched in a fox hole near Monte Cassino also landed Pass in the same hospital as a soldier who was suffering from shell shock on the floor above. Though Pass did not witness the incident, he heard about Gen. Patton slapping the young man.
“Shell shock made some men go absolutely berserk … sometimes it was necessary to slap a person to bring them back into reality,” Pass explained.
The pain that Pass experienced with “trench foot” was scream-worthy, but Pass endured the torment quietly.
“Because your feet are cold and wet, and you are lying in a foxhole,and you have no bath or change of clothes … the feet swell up and are too painful to touch,” recalled Pass.
At the hospital, they had to make a tent for the sheet, so that it would not touch the tender, inflamed feet. Pass was lucky that the trench foot didn’t become gangrenous and that he didn’t lose one or both of them. They did make him eligible for lifetime Veterans Administration benefits, and gave him a painful legacy of aching feet.
Pass’ feet continued to serve him throughout his life and no one will know that they probably hurt as he stands proudly, basking in the honor of presenting his grandson with the Veteran of the Year Award.
Pass did not enlist in the Army; he was drafted in 1942 at the age of 21. In fact, he and two of his brothers, one who enlisted, all served in the military at the same time. With just his sister remaining stateside, Pass’s mother could have been placed in a very tragic position, a policy that the military later changed. Nowadays, young men in the same family do not serve simultaneously.
“My mother was very proud that her kids were in the service protecting our freedom,” Pass said. “My youngest brother stayed in the U.S. Army and made a career of it.”
“It’s an honor to me,” Pass said not only of his military service, but of being selected to present Lt. Cmdr. Parsons with the Veteran of the Year award.
Without pity, Pass relates some of the hardships and joys of being in Europe during World War II. From Pine Castle AFB in Florida, Pass entered the war theater in Tunisia, where he was stationed near the famous Casa Blanca.
In Italy, the Italians thought he was “just a kid.” Though 21 at the time, photographs show a young man who looked like a young teenager. Indeed, standing at 5-foot 3 1/2 inches, the fresh-faced young man weighed just 110 pounds when he was drafted. After physical training, Pass weighed 135, but still appeared even younger than his peers.
He was not razzed or ashamed of his height. The one handicap, though, was always lagging behind in marches. The tall guys were always out in front, Pass said, with their long legs giving them a quick stride. The shorter men were always in the rear, and often had to run to catch up with their comrades.
Combined with 60-pound backpacks, some of those marches were arduous. They also crossed the Volturno River, where they climbed down a 10-foot embankment. They didn’t swim across, but waded across with their packs and water up to their chest. Designated swimmers tied ropes on either end of the river for the soldiers to hold onto in the swift current.
Other than that, Pass was always comfortable in his shoes. Born in Canton, Ohio in 1924, Pass spoke only Greek until he entered kindergarten. Ethnic clusters were typical of the time, and Pass and his Greek-born parents flourished in the close-knit town, There were fun Greek Orthodox church picnics and a loving, caring community where Pass fit right in.
His original last name, a long Greek surname with multiple syllables, was changed during grade school, as no one could pronounce or spell it. Many Greek surnames were changed to “Pappas,” but his last name was shortened to Pass.
While in Italy, Pass requested a pass to go to Greece, but it was denied. He has never been to Greece, but he has enjoyed a long and fruitful life, despite his feet. In fact, he can relate to the young people currently coming out of the armed forces. “I wanted to go into civil service,” Pass noted, “but there just weren’t any jobs available. It took me a year to get a job.”
Not long after Pass was drafted, his family moved from Ohio to Canoga Park, and so Pass stayed in Southern California. After giving up on the gutted civil service, Pass went into the restaurant business.
He also married his first wife, who died in 1970 after a heart attack. She and Pass did not have children, but Pass adopted her daughter, who became like his very own.
Pass had no idea that he would fall in love and marry once again. But while working together at a restaurant in Southern California, he and Beulah (Bea) fell in love.
Like many chefs, Pass could be irascible.
“Bea came up and said, ‘A side of toast.’ I said, ‘just say toast’ — as a chef I didn’t care if it was a side of toast — all I needed to know was ‘Toast!’ I always tried to get the waitresses to say as little as possible when ordering,” Pass said,
From that first encounter, he and Bea began to relate to each other, going out to dance and leaving the stress of the restaurant behind them.
After they married in 1971, they opened their own restaurant on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood, a “mom and pop” restaurant called “John and Bea’s.” Their down-home food was sought after, with one movie star always ordering lots of clam chowder on Fridays.
Again, Pass and Bea did not have children together, but Pass embraced Bea’s children as his own. He has four children and nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. Though none of them are biological, the love is the same, according to Pass. Most of them call him “Poppee” and extol his virtues, all the things he taught them and the care he showed everyone with delicious food and hospitality.
Pass specialized in American food, and never really learned to cook Greek dishes. But from Pass’ mother, Bea learned to make baklava pastry (walnuts and honey on thinly rolled-out, flaky, layered crust) and other Greek specialties.
He and Bea grieved together as one grandchild succumbed to leukemia at age 14 and another died of muscular dystrophy. But Pass is proud and close to all his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, including Jake Parsons.
Pass and Bea moved to Camino in 1984, then downsized and relocated to Placerville in 2000. His beautiful home is designed on the same lines as his large Camino home, only smaller. They needed to be closer to medical care, as Bea suffered from Alzheimer’s. Pass spent many years taking care of his beloved wife, who died April 2, 2010. Pass is still bereft, with Bea’s absence painful, since his days revolved around caring for her.
While near Monte Cassino, Pass and his comrades could see the eruptions of Mt. Vesuvius. When Pass returned to the United States, he was placed in the Army Air Corps (the Air Force didn’t exist until 1948), where he worked in ordnance. He modified machine guns until he was honorably discharged from the service in 1948.
Especially working as a chef, aching feet have been a big part of Pass’ life, a legacy of the trench foot suffered in the trenches of Italy. But he never let that pain hold him back. He is still close to his busy family, and he still drives and attends a church in Shingle Springs.
Just as hurting feet and diminutive height won’t stop him from standing tall and proudly this Friday for as long as it takes to honor his country and its Veterans, past and present. No one will know his pain, but they will know his pride in America, fellow veterans and his very own “Veteran of the Year” grandson.
Editor’s note — USN Ret. Lt. Cmdr. Jacob Parsons was featured in the Nov. 11, 2010, edition of the Mountain Democrat. His complete story can be accessed in the Mountain Democrat archives.
E-mail this correspondent at [email protected]