Originally published May 6, 2012
If you pass on the street an old man with white hair, flannel shirt and worn bluejeans moving gingerly with the ache of arthritis and a heart prone to misbehavior, you normally just glance and walk on by. But if that man is Bob Farner, stop and look back at a real-life Dr. Dolittle who is also a war hero.
And that’s using “hero” in its true meaning. Stored at home are a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.
The man comes across as anything but heroic. He’s a big, bluff fellow with no pretension. He lives in a small home in Vista that could use a younger man’s upkeep. It has a large, bare backyard filled with ducks, fangy mongrels, an emu that eats romaine lettuce and even a big alligator, all of which are still alive because he took them in. Except for the gator, who is not welcome in polite society outside his pen, the animals walk free. The ducks waddle by a streetwise German shepherd as though they’re first cousins.
Farner, 89, is a retired Marine noncom who became a school janitor. He may be the only old-time sergeant who says gosh, golly and darn.
He is a retired, self-taught wildlife rehabilitator who has the touch to soothe the savage beast, or at least the predator with jaws that throw sparks when they snap. He once had a mountain lion and a coyote that couldn’t be returned to the wild, so he used them to educate schoolchildren. The cougar would ride in the front seat with him; the coyote would sleep at night on his bed.
But hidden far deeper than his friendly face are memories of brutality, barbed wire and the stare of death. Back in spring 1942, he was burrowed into the undergrowth on Corregidor, the small Manila Bay island where Gen. MacArthur and a bedraggled group of U.S. troops, Filipino soldiers and medical personnel were besieged by attacking Japanese troops. He served as a guard for MacArthur there.
“I truly did love that rifle. But one time when I let loose, a Marine near me shouted, ‘Get away from us with that damn thing. It’s drawing all the fire.’ I remember when this Jap tank came through the undergrowth, and this officer was standing in the turret. I got a good bead, and pop!” World War II Marines still tend to be unapologetic; it’s not hatred, just the way it was.
Farner says the troops had plenty of fight, but not much medicine, ammunition, food or hope. He speaks with frustration still to this day of a low-flying enemy plane that circled his position as the time of surrender neared. “I ran to a .50-caliber and swung it around and pointed it, then the plate fell out. Darn it! I coulda got that plane.”
At the surrender on April 9, when a captain carrying a white flag told Farner to turn in his BAR, he protested in astonishment. “Hell, we can beat these guys,” he said. But he had to follow orders, so he broke down his rifle and threw away the parts, then joined the others.
When the Japanese came, they searched the Americans and Filipinos and stole what they wanted. They killed those holding Japanese souvenirs, then started them on their way.
The Corregidor prisoners weren’t taken on the death march with the Bataan Peninsula prisoners, but went directly to fetid, jammed camps. And it was in those camps that the struggle to survive began and didn’t let up until victory more than three years later.
Farner was a brash kid of 19 thrown into a prison where survival depended on either luck or caution. Farner must have had lots of luck. He quickly learned what brutality was. One day he saw a ripe papaya within reach just beyond the barbed wire. He grabbed it, but was seen by a guard. The same day came the reckoning.
“They stood me in the yard and hit me several times across the back with a full swing of a five-foot steel rebar rod. Each time, it knocked me down. They’d make me get up and do it again. It broke both my arms. Then, they stood me with my head against a wall and had the guards walk by and punch me, knocking my head against the bricks. It fractured my skull. Gosh, that hurt.”
To the guards, the spirited Farner served as a handy object lesson to the other prisoners.
Farner and fellow prisoners were transported to Japan on a slow freighter where they were jammed into the dirty hold much of the time. They didn’t know it, but American submarines were making a shooting gallery of the China Sea, but the pokey old tub sailed through unscathed.
In Japan, the prisoners were forced into labor details unloading ships. Farner remembers unloading bags of rice. “They searched us morning and night, but I had found a piece of hacksaw blade, and as we walked through the narrow passages in the hold, I’d reach out and slit the rice bags. The fellows behind me would then grab handfuls of rice. If they’d found that blade, I’da been killed for sure.”
How did he conceal the blade?
“I tied it to my penis.”
Farner would sneak into the camp kitchen and liberate rice. “I bribed the guard with cigarettes. But finally, they caught me and put me under guard. All night they kept me awake and beat me. Gosh. In the morning, two American officers were called into a meeting with the Japanese. When they came out, one said, ‘They’re going to behead you.’ ...
“They took me to a room where the guards were gathered. Off to the side, a sergeant was taking practice swings with a heavy sword. The guard I’d bribed was scared and looking at me and shook his head, begging for me not to tell. The officer said I’d been caught stealing and I was gonna have my head cut off. I said, ‘You can kill me, but you can’t blame me for trying to survive.’
“Finally, they said they were just going to beat me again. And they did. They just beat the living hell out of me.”
Farner spent the remaining months in the cold, in sickness and in hunger. But he survived.
Today, Bob Farner can sometimes be seen in North County driving with a large dog and a parrot, both loose in the car. By looks, were the dog human, it would probably sport jailhouse tattoos. That prompts an obvious question.
“No, they’re fine together,” Farner says. “The dog’s well-fed and gets lots of affection. He’s got no reason to kill. He’s not like some people.”
The man knows of what he speaks.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at [email protected].
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