John McCaslin

"By all accounts," suburban Chicago's Daily Herald wrote last week, "John 'Doc' McCaslin was the Dr. Doolittle of his time, a friend to both the people he encountered and the animals he nurtured."

My lone uncle, a large-animal veterinarian for more than 60 years, who bred and raced horses while refusing to let Chicago's suburbs encroach on his farm, passed away Sunday, Aug. 29, at 86.

Wilbert Hageman had known Uncle John since 1949.

"Whatever he said, you listened," he told the newspaper. "You look up to a person like that the rest of your lifetime."

As did the many farmers whose horses and cows he cared for.

"The thing was they wouldn't get a bill until Christmas time," recalled Mike Ashby, a longtime board member of the DuPage County farm bureau. "Once a year, he'd sit down and figure out what he was owed. Everyone thought they owed him much more than he'd ever send them a bill for."

More than anything else, "Doc" made people smile. Once, when things weren't going well in the crop office, Ashby said he drove out to Uncle John's farm, only to come upon a brown-and-white sign erected next to a pond.

"It said 'Ashby Pond' on it," he smiled. "Doc said he thought I'd been around long enough to have something named after me."

Few people knew of Uncle John's heroic military service during World War II because, like many others of his generation, he rarely spoke about it. But let the record show that when President Roosevelt issued a secretive presidential call for volunteers for "a dangerous and hazardous mission," Uncle John, a U.S. Army veterinarian, was among 3,000 American soldiers who soon became known as "Merrill's Marauders."

With little tank and artillery support - only "Doc's" mules to carry their loads - the Marauders marched and fought their way for an amazing 1,000 miles, through thick jungle and over the Himalayas, to surprise the Japanese in Burma. Uncle John earned a Purple Heart along the way.

But perhaps most noteworthy in the annals of military history, John "Doc" McCaslin might well have been the only U.S. soldier to ride a Japanese submarine bareback during the war.

"That was the night we got sunk," he once recalled for a reporter, about the moonlit night of Feb. 8, 1945.

On board the liberty ship SS Peter Sylvester, which was steaming through the Indian Ocean, Uncle John retired below deck with the rest of the men in his company. Suddenly, without warning, two torpedoes fired by a Japanese submarine ripped into the belly of the ship.

"The ship broke right in half," he said.

John McCaslin

John McCaslin is a contributing columnist on and author of Inside The Beltway: Offbeat Stories, Scoops, and Shenanigans from around the Nation's Capital .

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