It was December 7, 1942, one year since the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Jerry Nemec was not focused on what awaited him across the Pacific when he traveled under the Golden Gate Bridge in admiration of the engineering marvel, which had been completed just five years earlier. He had never seen anything like this in Austin.
Nemec was 18 and attending Austin’s Durham Business School when his draft card came in the mail. Instead of waiting to be assigned to a regimen, Nemec traveled to San Antonio and enlisted in the military to become a pilot.
“I was not able to be a pilot due to my vision,” Nemec said. “I was assigned to the 5th Air Force and went to basic training in Colorado.”
Jerry and his comrades traveled over 7,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean to northern Queensland, Australia. The Corps arrived a month later to await orders. By this time, Nemec was known as a problem solver, and his services were needed in Port Moresby, New Guinea.
“Allies were instructed to not leave trash and to clean up debris, but we discovered it upon arrival,” Nemec added. “No one could start a fire or keep it going, but growing up on a farm, I knew exactly what to do.”
Nemec worked in the shipping department while in New Guinea, loading and supplying departing planes. The Allies gained control of New Guinea from the Japanese, and Nemec was instructed to load three cargo planes with lumber, shingles, nails and anything needed to set up camp.
“We knew we were going somewhere, but not exactly where or when,” Nemec said. “The next day we flew to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines and they day after we landed in Iwo Jima.”
The Battle of Iwo Jima had ended with a decisive victory for the Allies, but the mass graves and memorials did not indicate that to Nemec. All told, 6,281 Allies died, and another 19,000 were wounded.
“I arrived after the battle and helped hand out medicine and care for those still in Iwo Jima,” Nemec said. “It was a sad scene.”
Following the surrender of Japan in September 1945, Nemec was traveling in a Jeep when he came upon a bungalow, which he feared may lead to trouble and investigated the scene. Ironically, Nemec had just approached the home of Gen. Hideki Tojo, the 40th Prime Minister of Japan.
“I was 30 minutes too late,” Nemec added. “Gen. MacArthur had just accepted Gen. Tojo’s surrender.”
Nemec peered into the window to see a man looking back at him. The man grabbed a gun and shot himself. It was Gen. Tojo. Nemec rushed over and was able to save Tojo’s life. However, Tojo would be tried, convicted and hung three years later.
“I was just happy he did not shoot me first,” Nemec said.
Nemec was able to experience world history in real time when a pilot friend flew him over the city of Hiroshima, which had been decimated by the atomic bomb.
“You could not believe what one bomb could do,” Nemec added.
December rolled around and Nemec’s commanding officer noticed Nemec had accumulated enough points to be honorably discharged. He was going home.
Three years after traveling into the great unknown, Nemec once again traveled under the Golden Gate Bridge, which was even greater this time. He did not know what was next, but he was happy to be in the US.
“I arrived in San Francisco two days before Christmas and I was determined to make it home,” Nemec said. “I arrived Christmas evening back in Texas. It was a great feeling.”
Following his discharge, Nemec enrolled at Texas A&M, where he graduated in 1949 with a degree in structural engineering. Nemec then worked for the highway department, moving around before finally settling in Huntsville with his wife in 1954. Nemec worked at TxDOT until his retirement in 1984, when he began independent contracting for Walker and Madison Counties.
Nemec carried his knowledge from the military into his professional and personal lives, always working to solve problems.
“All I can say is that I am a lucky guy,” Nemec said.