Photo by Lee Ryan
John Newmaster stands by his Christmas tree at his Burien home.

Burien senior moves as fast as he talks

From the moment I entered John Newmaster’s home, there was very little to remind me that I was talking to an 87 year old man. John moves as fast as he talks. He’s a bit of a Speedy Gonzales--Philly style

Although John and his wife Sandy now live in Burien, he started out in Philadelphia surrounded by women. He was born in 1925 and grew up under the watchful eye of his mother, her three sisters and his grandmother.

“Grandma ran a boarding house to keep us all going. She had four rooms to rent and charged $5 a week. If she was full up, then she’d bring in $80 a month, but $40 of that went to the mortgage and the other $40 had to feed five women and one little boy, me!” he said.

It was the Depression and times were tough. “My two aunts took up burlesque. When I was five, they had me do a buffalo shuffle across the stage” he beamed and went on. “At Christmas, Grandma would go out and get a bush and we’d make wooden figures and decorate them to hang on it. When I was eight, they got me a carpenter set with a real little saw. After I sawed off the leg of the table, there went the carpenter’s set!” he laughed.

I asked what he remembered of the Depression. “Well, eggs were 1 cent each and you could get a loaf of week-old bread for a penny, too. Grandma had a special way to soften it back up, again, so it wasn’t too bad.”

“We belonged to a Slavic Orthodox church and Grandma would mash potatoes and add yeast to make vodka for the priest’s Christmas visit. We’d have a nativity and straw on the table with food and the priest would go from house to house.”

I asked him if the priest was pretty well snockered by the end of the night. John said, “Yes, I’m pretty sure he was, but we never talked about it.” He laughed a bit more.

In 1943, he enlisted with the 116th Naval Construction Battalion. I guess he could now be trusted with a saw. If nothing else, they could send him to the enemy camp and have him saw the legs off their tables. For training, they sent him to Gulf Port Mississippi, Port Hueneme California, Hawaii and then over to Japan.

“In February of 1944, we were about to invade Japan. We were just forty miles from our target when they announced the war was over. If we would have invaded, we would have lost a million of our men. They were waiting for us and I guess everyone knew it, because I wandered into the hold and the whole bottom of the ship was filled with caskets. That was a scary sight,” he said.

“In Iwo Jima, we were repairing the runway with these strips that hooked together like Legos to cover the gravel and coral--the dust really messed with the plane engines.

“We always had our Carbine on us, because Japan wasn’t fully occupied and there were 2 ½ million soldiers that were still a threat to us.”

He went on, “I rejoined in 1946 and one of my first jobs was to help dig up 98 of the civilian bodies on Wake Island, so that they could be shipped back to their home towns for burial. That was a tough one.”

John skipped through the years, as if it was all just yesterday for him.

“In 1949 we were building barracks for the Marines at China’s Tsingtao Airbase. We were out there working on the runway when all of a sudden, up in the hills, a division (10-20,000) Communist Party soldiers surrounded the base. We only had 170 Marines and 40 Seabees, but I guess they felt they were outnumbered, because they disappeared as quickly as they came.”

His military pride spread across his face on that one.

Between 1952 and 1962, he was serving in Guam, Newfoundland, Virginia, Portland, Adak Alaska, and in 1963, he was in South Vietnam. He said, “We taught them carpentry, plumbing and electrical skills. It was a way to help them assert their independence from North Vietnam.”

I asked him about Vietnam and his understanding of it all. He said, “We went down there thinking that we were doing something good, but it’s still confusing, to this day, what it was all about.”

So, how does this all tie in with Christmas? Well, we have the freedom to celebrate Christmas, any way we like. That freedom was purchased, at a price, and John has never forgotten that. He’s been volunteering at the VA hospitals since 1946.

As he said, “I get to spend my Christmas at home, but I always remember my comrades out in the field. Freedom is just one shot away.”

Both John and I are on the same page in remembering to walk up and greet our soldiers when they come home and to thank the veterans. We can also donate more than just money.

We can make the time to volunteer at the organizations that care for the troops’ needs – especially our soldiers who are away from home or those who come home to a hospital, so that they also have a Merry Christmas.

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