Jerome Pasto: Views from above

August 22, 2005 

His vision is blurry now. Eyes that once were able to look at a photograph taken from high altitude and identify even the most minute detail have lost their acuity.

But even at 90, Jerome Pasto's memory is sharp, enabling him to reach back 60 years and retrieve moments in time from his service with the U.S. Navy in World War II.

During his 13 months aboard the USS San Jacinto, a medium-sized aircraft carrier, Pasto served as a photo interpreter. Through the camera's lens, he saw the war in the Pacific in a way few others did.

"After a bomb strike, planes would fly over the target and take photos, and I would analyze the damage," he explained. "The commanders were always right there wanting to know how we did.

"The photo office would develop the negatives, make prints and bring them to me. I'd work through the night to analyze them. During this time the whole task force would be under way so a destroyer would come alongside, pick up my report and take it to the commander -- usually either (Raymond) Spruance or (William) Halsey.

"At daybreak, everyone had to go on general quarters. It didn't matter who you were or how much sleep you had, because at daybreak there could be a Japanese sub out front, so you had to be ready. We had a combat air patrol overhead looking for any signs of the enemy."

Pasto was uniquely qualified for his job. After graduating from Cornell in 1938 -- he later earned a master's degree and a doctorate from the school -- he was an agronomist and had taken a job mapping soil.

"I knew what everything looked like from the air," he said. "I volunteered because I was so darned mad about Pearl Harbor. And the work I was doing seemed so dull and unimportant compared to what was going on in the war.

"I was commissioned right out of civilian life. They sent me to Dartmouth for 90 days to learn how to be an officer. I was what they called a 90-day wonder, and the Annapolis graduates let us know that. But once we got about doing our jobs, they accepted us."

Pasto said he joined the San Jacinto in November 1943 and was involved in every Pacific campaign thereafter, earning seven battle stars.

"One time they sent us between Formosa and the northern tip of Luzon, behind the Philippine Islands, to destroy gasoline facilities," he recalled. "Those facilities were built by American companies, but we wanted to destroy them so the Japanese wouldn't have that fuel.

"They knew we were there -- all night long we were pestered by bogies (Japanese planes) -- but they couldn't do anything about it."

One of the more memorable incidents Pasto recalled happened on the island of Saipan. Pasto had studied the aerial photos of Saipan and deduced that the Japanese had built what are known as "hard defenses," reinforced concrete structures to house both troops and artillery.

"One of our planes was damaged and had to land there," he said. "We sent a mechanic in to work on the plane and get it flyable, and I wanted to go along. I asked the captain and he said no. A little later, I asked him again, and he allowed me to go ashore even though the battle was still going on. I had convinced him that the information I could get would help us a great deal."

Once on the island, Pasto went into one of the concrete bunkers and discovered bags of rice, hand grenades, gas masks and four savings-account books belonging to soldiers who occupied the bunker. He kept them among his war souvenirs until the 1980s, when the issue of U.S. troops missing in action in Vietnam became a major issue.

"I got to thinking, I know where four of these Japanese soldiers died," he said. "So I sent copies of these passbooks to the Japanese government and asked them to pass them on to surviving relatives of those men.

"Members of two of those families got in touch with me. They sent me very nice letters, thanking me. I later sent them the originals and kept the copies."

A photo of Pasto inspecting an anti-aircraft gun emplacement on Saipan appears in James Bradley's book "Flyboys."

One of the stories in that book involves a young combat pilot named George H.W. Bush, whose plane was shot down during a mission to take out a communications tower on the island of ChiChi Jima. Bush, whose squadron flew off the San Jacinto, was the only survivor of the three-man crew.

"I didn't know him any better than anyone else," Pasto said. "He was a young pilot, just like anyone else. In the wardroom where we ate, the pilots cronied together, the ships officers ate with those they knew. No one had the foresight to see that he would become president. Neither did he."

On the wall of his living room is a portrait of Pasto along with Bush and his wife, Barbara, taken at a reunion of the San Jacinto crew in Texas A&M University in College Station. It is autographed by the former president.

"There was a big turnout for that reunion," Pasto said. "Everyone knew he was going to be there. We have had a reunion every year since the war, and we're having one this month. But it will probably be the last one. There are only a few of us left. Most of them are the ones who were 17 or 18 when they came aboard. I'll never forget them."

Ron Bracken can be reached at 231-4641 or rbracken@centredaily.com.

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