Mary Ussery’s dad, a Pearl Harbor survivor and Guadalcanal veteran, told her not to look at his scrapbook from the war.
Even in the 18 years since his death, she kept that promise until Thursday morning, the day before the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Roger Ussery, a Laurens County native, was an Army private when Japan launched the surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941. He was an eyewitness, and recorded it in his scrapbook, as well as other horrors he saw in the war to come. That includes brutal combat on Guadalcanal, in which he was seriously injured.
He referred to the Pearl Harbor attack as “when the Japs stuck us in the back.”
Ussery told his daughter that his scrapbook wasn’t fit for her to see, at least until she was old enough. She kept the book at the bottom of a drawer and obeyed his order.
Listening to coverage of the funeral of former President George H.W. Bush, a World War II pilot, and knowing the Pearl Harbor anniversary was coming up, she kept thinking of her dad. Something told her it was time to look at his book. She had peeked into it briefly before, but out of respect for him, she never looked through it at length.
So in the pre-dawn hours Thursday, she decided she was now old enough, got up and pulled the book out. What she found is that her father had created a historical treasure of the war, complete with his own drawings of Japanese generals, soldiers and battle areas, newspaper clippings with his first-hand observations, and various memorabilia taped onto the pages. That includes a piece of a Japanese Zero fighter, insignia from uniforms of Japanese troops, and some gruesome photos. One photo shows a Philippine native smiling while holding the severed head of a Japanese soldier. Another shows bodies of American, Australian and Japanese soldiers scattered along a beach so thick that it earned the nickname “Maggot Beach.”
“I’m not one who ever cries,” Mary Ussery said. “Everyone who knows me knows that I’m really tough, but it took all I had to get through some of it this morning.”
She is considering donating the book to a museum so that it can be preserved for others to see.
At Guadalcanal Japanese gunfire broke a tree limb over Ussery’s head that fell on him and broke his back. That was the end of the war for him. Even while still in a back brace, his daughter said, he worked his way to a degree at the University of Georgia and became a county agent. He later earned a degree in special education and taught students with behavioral disorders.
“Because of what he had seen, he wanted to find good in everybody and he wanted to help everybody,” she said. “These are kids nobody else could do anything with, but he was like a pied piper when it came to young people. They followed him. At his funeral, you couldn’t put another student in there.”
In one of the books she found a poem he wrote, likely while he was still in a hospital after Guadalcanal. It was an ode to his friends still on the battlefield, called “Our Heroes on Guadalcanal.” The last verse is:
“Now I shall end by saying this, I leave you now in solemn bliss, By saying a prayer for that good pal, Who is fighting his heart out on Guadalcanal.”