The old man waited quietly in his wheelchair, an oxygen line lacing his face, a military cap atop his head. On Monday just after 11 a.m., a commotion erupted at the Ormond Nursing and Care Center's front door as a slight, somewhat younger gentleman approached.
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by Coleman Warner,
The Times-Picayune Wednesday November 26, 2008, 7:38 PM
The visitor, Jesus Gonzalez, began to weep and almost buckled.
When the two men met 65 years ago, James Carrington was a tall, strapping American soldier, and he was leaping off the perimeter wall of the notorious Bilibid Prison in the heart of Manila, bleeding and desperate.
"Please give me a ride!" the stranger, a Marine from New Orleans, blurted toward a cluster of Filipinos in a passing horse cart.
Gonzalez, 11, was among them. The year was 1944.
"Please give me a ride!"
Doing so would place all at risk of arrest and execution by Japanese soldiers occupying the Philippines as World War II raged. But the cart riders, led by Jesus' brother Moises, 20, almost instantly agreed to take Carrington in, hiding the prison escapee under hay on the two-wheeled vehicle's floor.
With a Japanese checkpoint just around the corner, the younger Gonzalez was terrified. He burst into tears.
Now 76, Gonzalez was overcome with emotion again this week as he arrived at the Destrehan nursing home, accompanied by his daughter. The retired engineer carried aging photographs and potent memories from the war episode.
"I was crying then, I was scared, " he said. "Now I cry for joy."
A local war hero
Carrington, a Warren Easton High student who left high school to join the Marines in 1939, is a local icon from the steadily disappearing 1940s war generation. At the National World War II Museum, a glass case contains the faded pictures and items he saved from the Philippines: a pistol, a mortar, military rank tabs from dead Japanese soldiers.
As one of thousands of American and Filipino soldiers who fought a tenacious, monthslong battle to hold Corregidor, a tiny but strategically vital island, Carrington's experiences have been well-chronicled. The battle ended in surrender, imprisonment and torture.
"They hung me up by my thumbs for laughing, " the veteran said in 1992. "They tried to make you beg for mercy, but I didn't. I just put my mind in another world. I just thought about, well, you're a Marine, you're supposed to be tough."
Carrington's later exploits as a guerrilla fighter in the Philippines after his prison escape are captured vividly in at least one book.
But references in historical accounts to the daring role sympathetic Filipinos played in saving the Marine corporal's life when he broke out of Bilibid have been fleeting.
Carrington knows well their contributions. Without the Gonzalez brothers and other strangers who had paid for rides in the horse cart that day, there would have been no guerrilla campaign for him, no shot at marriage and raising a family in Harahan.
"If it weren't for them, I wouldn't be here, " he said Monday.
High price for cooperation
At some of the prison camps run by Japanese during the war, escape attempts were rare because of a "blood-brother" edict: If someone escaped, everyone else in a designated group of 10 soldiers faced execution. But that rule wasn't applied at the Bilibid Prison, believed to be escape-proof, surrounded by high-voltage wires, tall fences and Japanese forces.
On the evening of April 14, 1944, Carrington and a fellow Marine, Sgt. Ray Parker, made their break for freedom after a sentry passed, slithering under an electric line that posed the first obstacle. Carrington went first and made it under, but Parker's clothing caught on the line and a power jolt knocked him unconscious.
Carrington kept moving, scaling four walls before landing at the edge of the street, not far from a headquarters building for the Japanese military.
The horse cart, called a karetela by Filipinos, was steps away, and he ran alongside it, pleading for help from the startled riders.
On the cart was Moises Gonzalez, a clandestine member of the Filipino resistance movement. He wanted to help the American, but fearing for his passengers' safety, did so only after they agreed.
At each of two checkpoints, a Japanese soldier jabbed the hay with a bayonet, checking for a stowaway. One of the jabs scraped Carrington's leg, he recalls, but he remained undiscovered.
Jesus couldn't stop sobbing.
"The Japanese soldier was asking me why I was crying, and I cried all the more louder, " Gonzalez said. "I couldn't tell him what was happening."
Back at the Gonzalez home, Moises hid Carrington in an area cordoned off from the rest of the family of nine children. Moises served as leader and breadwinner for the family in the absence of his father, who had died years earlier.
Only he and Jesus, for the time being, knew about the soldier's presence. Carrington stayed there about three days, until Moises could arrange a new hiding place at a tuberculosis asylum. Carrington left a cigarette lighter, with his name etched into its side, with the Gonzalez family.
When he was moved, he wore a disguise as he was spirited through streets controlled by Japanese soldiers. Moises Gonzalez later told Jesus that he had borrowed a priest's robe and put it on the escapee.
During his days in hiding in Manila, Carrington said, Filipinos provided him with a .45-caliber pistol, a relic from the Spanish-American War.
The Marine spent two more weeks in hiding, gathering strength, before a band of guerrillas was able to move him out of the city, walking 40 kilometers with him through the countryside before he made contact with American and Filipino fighters operating out of a hidden mountain camp. He would soon become a loyal associate of Army Maj. Edward Ramsey, commander of shadowy guerrilla forces that created havoc for Japanese occupiers, attacking patrols and radioing intelligence to the American military.
'Let's Google him'
The families of Jim Carrington and Jesus Gonzalez for years had heard stories from the war years, and the tale of risks taken to assist Carrington after his prison escape loomed large. But the notion of the two men actually talking and meeting again didn't take form until Gonzalez's daughter, Valerie, a music teacher and former opera singer, began playing reporter with her father, pressing for details.
Jesus Gonzalez moved to British Columbia decades ago with his wife, a wood scientist, and they raised three children.
Valerie Gonzalez, her curiosity aroused by a visit to the Philippines a decade ago, began assembling material for a book about her family. In July, she visited her parents and refined her questions for her father.
"I grew up loving this story" about a Marine, she said. "I grew up loving James Carrington, and I didn't know his name. I knew that there was an American soldier who heroically escaped and Dad helped him, and he was out there in the great beyond, " said Gonzalez, who lives in New Jersey
As her father recalled Carrington hiding in the family's home, he mentioned the cigarette lighter the soldier left -- and that jogged his memory of the soldier's full name. His daughter was stunned at the belated revelation.
"Let's Google him, " she said.
She quickly came up with a reference to a James Carrington, Marine, on a Web site for people seeking Hurricane Katrina survivors. It gave her a lead to someone who knew Carrington. That person got word to Carrington, at the nursing home where he now lives.
In less than two days, Jesus Gonzalez and his daughter got a call from Carrington. They caught up at a distance, then made plans for a visit to Destrehan.
Hurricane Gustav gave new urgency to that plan. During his evacuation to a nursing home in Alexandria, the veteran came down with pneumonia. He nearly died. When he returned to Destrehan, he tired more easily. He remains under hospice care.
Heroic, but deeply sad
In more than a year with the guerrilla forces, Carrington exacted revenge on an enemy that had brutalized or killed many Americans. He became a virtual folk hero in the Pacific theater when, as commandant of a guerrilla forces base in the Luzon mountains, he used a pair of machine guns and several riflemen to repel a large Japanese attack force that had found the base.
"I saved the headquarters, " he said matter-of-factly this week.
Still, his memories of 1944, especially of the prison escape, are steeped in sadness. He learned after his escape that the Marine who tried to join him, Parker, was tortured and executed. And Moises Gonzalez was doomed by his role in Carrington's rescue.
Moises' girlfriend at the time, furious that he would not marry her, tipped off the Japanese to what Moises had done, the Gonzalez family says. About two months after the prison escape, dozens of soldiers broke down the doors of the Gonzalez home in the middle of the night and hauled the 20-year-old away.
Storming the house, slapping around their mother, the Japanese repeatedly demanded: "Where is the boy? Where is the boy?"
They wanted Jesus.
Somehow, the furious soldiers overlooked him, huddled on the floor, covered only by a mosquito net.
The family later got a note from Moises, saying he was in jail, tasked with fixing bicycles for the Japanese. They never heard from him again.
James Carrington, hearing reports that Moises had been executed, sent guerrillas on a mission back in Manila to hunt down and kill the woman who had turned Moises in, the veteran has told his family.
It's not clear whether the mission was carried out.
"If they didn't get her, " Jesus said quietly this week, "she's probably burning in hell right now."
Jesus said he doesn't regret that he and his brother took part in the impromptu rescue so long ago. He would do it again, he said.
And in the wake of the loss of his older brother, the family breadwinner, it was a souvenir of Carrington's visit -- the cigarette lighter -- that became a key to sustaining the family after Manila's liberation.
Jesus said that his mother, using the lighter and Moises' jail letter as evidence, persuaded U.S. authorities that the family had suffered a death because it helped an American serviceman. As a result, his mother received a U.S. military pension.
Drinking it all in
Less than an hour had passed since the nursing home visit began, and James Carrington was fading. The pauses between his responses to Jesus and Valerie Gonzalez grew longer.
"Do you want some oxygen, daddy?" asked Carrington's son, Jim Carrington Jr., an oil and gas attorney living in Houston who had driven in with his wife for the unusual reunion.
As the center's staff prepared to wheel the celebrated but weary resident back to his room, Carrington reached out and touched Gonzalez.
"The Filipinos are wonderful people, " he said.
With that, Gonzalez promised he would return again and again in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, eager to draw closer before time runs out.
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Coleman Warner can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3311.