An American Hero Passes into History
Col. Jack Jessup was a legend known by few outside the military.
By Mark Corallo
The newspaper obituary started with an interesting line: “He was a Frogman in the Navy during WWII.” Jack Jessup — Col. John E. Jessup — was indeed a Navy Frogman in WWII. And he was born in 1927, which means he was 18 when the war ended. Jack Jessup lied about his age when he enlisted in the Navy. He was 15 or 16 years old, and he decided to go off to war to defend freedom and liberate the world from tyranny. Well, he was a big kid, and the recruiters weren’t too worried about birth certificates — especially when it came to a street tough from Queens who had already had a few run-ins with the law.
The next line in the obit noted that he retired as a colonel after 30 years in the Army Special Forces, serving in both Korea and Vietnam. That’s still not an unusual story; plenty of guys lied about their ages to get into WWII and then made a career out of the armed services. The bit about SF, however, is a clue.
Fifteen years ago, when one of my buddies from Officer Candidate School saw my wedding picture, the one where Jack is standing next to me in his dress blues, he was temporarily speechless. He instantly recognized the Distinguished Service Cross, the Purple Hearts, the Silver and Bronze Stars with V devices. He saw the Ranger Tab, the SF crest, the Pathfinder badge, the Combat Diver badge, Master Blaster wings and combat jump wings, Combat Infantryman Badge, underwater demolitions badge, I could go on. Officers don’t wear the badges earned for rating “expert” on a weapon, but if they did, Jack’s would have formed a ladder from his chest to his knees.
Jack received the Distinguished Service Cross in Korea. The DSC is second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor. At lunch one day when I was visiting on Christmas leave, I asked him to tell me the story behind that medal. I knew that before receiving the DSC, he had already been shot in the stomach and awarded the Silver Star in another engagement with his first unit in Korea. He was truly reluctant, but I pressed. I wanted to hear it from him.
He began slowly and seemed pained by the memory. He was a first lieutenant in command of a Ranger company. On a routine mission, they came under heavy fire from high ground to their front. Two machine-gun positions were dug in at the top of the hill. They had to take out those positions. Jack led his men up the hill. They were being cut to shreds by the heavy fire. There was little cover. They didn’t stop. They were going down by the dozen. Jack got hit. But he kept going.
He emptied his rifle. Out of ammunition and severely wounded, he began to crawl up the hill toward the first machine-gun position. He affixed his bayonet, crawled in the growing darkness around the pill box, rolled in, and killed the two North Koreans manning the weapon. He climbed out and began low crawling toward the second position. Same thing — same result. Mission accomplished, hill taken, bad guys all dead. The remnants of his company found him on the side of the second position, bleeding badly. They field-dressed his wound and began the bumpy ride to the hospital. Jack joked to me that as he was being wheeled into the operating room, his regimental commander promised him the Congressional Medal of Honor if he didn’t survive.
Jack always referred to his four Purple Hearts as “Enemy Marksmanship Badges.”
Jack Jessup was a scholar too. He admired Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton, and other Army officers who had the intelligence and intellectual sophistication to which he aspired. When WWII ended, he decided the Navy wasn’t for him, so he went to the University of Maryland on the GI Bill. After graduating and attending OCS, was commissioned as an Army infantry lieutenant. When he came to Georgetown University in the 1960s to serve as ROTC commander, he pursued a Ph.D. in Russian history, and he went on to become one of the leading Sovietologists of his time. When he went for his dissertation board exam, the examiners had to admit that no one was qualified to test him. His manual on military history was long used in all officer training; as far as I know, it is still in use. Of all of the titles he earned, he was most proud of the Ph.D. He grinned like the cat that ate the canary every time someone called him “Doctor Jessup.”
When I applied for OCS, at Jack’s urging, in November 1993, I had to go through a series of pre-selection interviews. The last round was held at Fort Meade — the home of the National Security Agency — and conducted by a panel of officers (a captain, two majors, a lieutenant colonel, and a full bird). As they questioned me, they began to peruse my dossier. As the young captain came to Jack’s letter of recommendation, his eyes opened wide and his jaw dropped. He quickly handed it to the first major, who had the same reaction. By the time it reached the colonel, the rest were just staring at me, saying nothing. I thought I had done something wrong (I didn’t know what they were looking at, or that Jack’s signature on a letter could cause such a reaction). The colonel asked me to step outside the room. After about five minutes, the captain came out, pulled me into another room and asked, “How well do you know Colonel Jessup? Do you know what he does?” I said that I knew him well enough, considered him my mentor, and was sure that whatever Jack had ever told me about his career was unclassified. The captain just looked at me, got this enormous grin and said, “This is SO-O-O COOL!” I was brought back into the room to find all of the officers standing, waiting to shake my hand and thank me for wanting to serve America as an Army officer. Interview over.
Before being sent to my first unit, I was diagnosed with a fairly debilitating but treatable thyroid disease. When I reported to Fort Stewart, the battalion adjutant told me that it was unlikely I would be accepted into the battalion: “The Old Man doesn’t want any broke [expletive] lieutenants.” He told me to go home for the weekend and report on Monday morning. I called Jack and told him what had happened. His first concern was for my health. Then he told me to relax and report on Monday morning as ordered. When I walked into the personnel office at 0700, the officer said, “I don’t know who you are, where you came from or who you know, but the Commanding General called and ordered us to accept you into the Battalion. Apparently, the Army Chief of Staff called him. Who are you?” I just smiled and knew that Jack had picked up the phone. I have even better stories that I’ll keep to myself.
None of us in the younger generation who had been befriended and mentored by Jack knew a fraction of the details of his life. His life was classified. He did things, faced danger, made sacrifices, and stormed the gates of Hell on more occasions than any of us could imagine. In hot wars from WWII at age 16 to Desert Storm at age 64, and a very long cold war in between, Jack Jessup was the living definition of selfless service.
What we did know, we loved and wanted to emulate, though we knew we could only fall short. He was the last of a rare breed. He was a hard-drinking, hard-living, tough-as-nails, loyal-to-the-end American hero that Hollywood couldn’t dream up. He was a devout Catholic who prayed the Rosary and attended daily Mass whenever he could. James Bond, Jack Bauer, and Rambo combined couldn’t measure up to the real-life Jack Jessup. His exploits as a Ranger in Korea, as a Green Beret in Vietnam, as one of the founding leaders of Special Detachment Delta (more commonly known as Delta Force), and as a Cold Warrior are legendary with soldiers of a certain age. And while he was heavily decorated for his valor in battle, he received no medals for being in places like Budapest in 1956 or Tehran in 1980.
Only God and America could make a man like this. He stands shoulder to shoulder with a long line of heroes stretching from Lexington and Concord to Baghdad and beyond. His life is a reminder to us that to this day, some Americans choose a life of sacrifice and danger to save the rest of us from having that choice made for us.
On March 12, at Arlington National Cemetery, seven riflemen will fire three volleys, a bugler will play Taps, and an Army officer will present a folded flag to Jack’s widow, Jean, and whisper in her ear, “Please accept this flag on behalf of a grateful nation.”
If the American people knew the full story, I believe they truly would be grateful.
It is saddening to see that there is one less great american standing.
"May He support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen, and the evening comes,
and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done.
There in His mercy may He give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last."