OKEECHOBEE -- James Surles was 16 years old when he decided it was time for him to join the Navy during World War II, but first he had to convince his mother, and that was not going to be easy.
Legally you had to be 17 to join, and even then you needed a parent to sign for you, but Mr. Surles was determined to go.
“I begged and begged,” he said, “but she said she wasn’t gonna lie. I always tried to do what my mama taught me, but I said I’m going whether you say so or not. I enticed her to tell a lie.”
Once that hurdle was jumped, he had to pass a few more. He had a hunting accident as a young teen and was missing a huge chunk of his upper right arm and he can’t see much of anything out of his right eye, but when he was asked how he planned to shoot, he looked them straight in the eye, wiggled his left trigger finger and said, “that finger works good. I conned my way in,” he said. “I volunteered for every job I could.”
He was trained as an aviation machinist mate and earned three degrees in the aviation field while he was there. He wound up on the island of San Bruno in the middle of San Francisco Bay. His mission was to land ahead of the marines so they could land safely in the interior, but the war ended. They went to Japan anyway but went by ship, and he was there for nine months.
“I wanted to be part of it,” he said. His dad was in WWI and was poisoned by mustard gas. “I knew what that bomb could do, not all of it, but I knew.”
One day a high-ranking officer arrived and requisitioned a vehicle and two drivers. Mr. Surles was sitting there at the time, and they asked him if he wanted to go. He said, “I might as well. I’m not doing anything.” They went to the very edge of where the second bomb was dropped and spent five or six hours going further and further in. “He was looking for something, but we didn’t know what. When we got to one spot, he told me if this had been a conventional bomb, this would have been ground zero, and that’s how I got exposed to radiation,” said Mr. Surles.
They didn’t know the effects back then explained Mr. Surles. “It’s in my skin and my blood. It didn’t show up for a while.” He keeps getting skin cancers removed but they come right back.
When he first returned from overseas he worked at odd jobs, but later found a job working for General Mills in their feed mill. “They were the best people I ever worked for,” he said. He worked for them until they closed down the feed mill. The family moved to Okeechobee in the 60s and Mr. Surles worked as production supervisor for Hector Feed.
Before he went overseas, he met his future wife Evelene Lea, who at that time was a friend of his younger sister. The first time he laid eyes on her, he told himself, “I’m going to marry that girl,” and when he was 21, he did.
They were married for 65 years until she passed away about six years ago after battling Alzheimer’s disease. He says the secret to their long and happy marriage is respect. She was his wife, not his slave. She was the mother of his children. She was his everything. HE. LOVED. HIS. WIFE. And he still does, he said. Together, they had four children — three girls and a boy. They have so many grandchildren he can’t even hazard a guess as to how many there are now.
Mr. Surles does not consider himself a hero. He said he was just a regular man, doing what he was told. “I did a lot of things I’m proud of and some I’m not,” he said. “I had to do what I was ordered to do. Sometimes I didn’t like it. He was in the service for two years, nine months and three days, and he joked if you give him a few minutes he could probably tell you how many hours.”