Godspeed, Doc

John McCaslin
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Posted: Sep 07, 2004 12:00 AM

"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.

Wearing only a life jacket, Uncle John scrambled as fast as he could out of the ship's hold, and within seconds, he was swimming in the ocean water. He was alone, but no doubt he was one of the lucky ones.

"Wouldn't you know I was just floating there in the dark when that damn submarine surfaced right under me?" he said to the reporter's surprise. "I washed off its deck in the moonlight."

When daylight came, he could see no other sign of life. Luckily, he came across a portion of the ship's loading platform, several wooden planks, and he clung to them for the next several days.

"I floated all day and all night and then all the next day," he said. "Then, others from the ship who were on a lifeboat saw me and came over to pick me up. We were in that boat for two or three days when we got picked up by a ship and taken to Perth, Australia."

There was no military salute, no sounding of the taps this past Thursday when Uncle John, surrounded by many friends and family, was laid to rest alongside his son, George, in a small West Chicago cemetery. But indeed, "Doc" was among the bravest of what is now rightly considered the greatest generation.

ALMIGHTY ENDORSEMENT

"Jesus Loves You," reads the official White House pool report of a lone banner held high for President Bush as his motorcade passed Sunday through Parkersburg, W.Va.

AWAITING JUSTICE

Still under federal investigation is the "sloppy socks scandal" - or so the theft of national-security documents by former Clinton White House official Samuel R. Berger has been duly named by Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee Republican.

The congresswoman finds it incredulous that former President Clinton would make a "laughing matter" of his former national security adviser "stooping to such a level .  .. where it appears he has stuffed (documents) in his socks, in his pants pocket, in his jacket pocket. . . .

"Let me tell you, my constituents want some answers," says Blackburn.

GHOST WRITER

Longtime Chicago Sun-Times political columnist Steve Neal was the centerpiece of Chicago politics until he lost his life to a brief but intense illness in February.

Considered a rare breed in modern journalism - a relentless reporter and raconteur who demonstrated a tremendous knowledge of history - he left a huge mark on Chicago, where he regularly congregated with the high and mighty.

As a chronicler of political life, he was best known for his snappy leads, as well as his many books - 11 in all - albeit he didn't live to see the publishing date of his final tome: "Happy Days Are Here Again: The 1932 Democratic Convention, the Emergence of FDR - And How America Was Changed Forever."

So, Tuesday night, Washington-based Chicago columnist Robert Novak and Congressional Quarterly Publisher Bob Merry joined widow Susan Neal and a host of admiring scribes at Teatro Goldoni in Washington to formally release the book on Neal's behalf.

WEEKEND UPDATE

While continuing to dig its new galleries on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Newseum counts more than 500 journalism-related artifacts added to its already impressive collection.

Among the more eye-opening, the bomb-shattered car that belonged to Arizona Republic organized crime reporter Don Bolles, who died in 1976 after an assassin detonated a bomb placed beneath the seat of the car.

When the $400 million, 550,000-square-foot new Newseum opens in 2007, the car's wreckage will go on display in its "Dateline: Danger" gallery - one of a dozen new artifact galleries, according to the Newseum's executive director, Joe Urschel.

Other new acquisitions include a manuscript filed by Ernie Pyle for one of his World War II newspaper columns, AP and UPI teletype wire copy reporting the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and on the lighter side, a "Weekend Update" sign from the first season of TV's "Saturday Night Live."

URGENT MATTERS

Not one, but two mayors - Glen Goodwin and Jerry Ruby - joined President Bush on the dais as he stumped this past weekend in Brecksville-Broadview Heights, Ohio.

"I'm honored the two mayors are here," noted Bush, who said that when barking presidential orders, his job is basically no different than theirs.

"Fill the potholes!" he said. "Works every time."

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"He says he's in touch with the West. He must mean western Massachusetts."

- Vice President Dick Cheney, continuing his campaign assault on Democratic presidential nominee and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

CHEF'S CHOICE

As award-winning executive chef of three of Washington's most popular restaurants - DC Coast, TenPenh and Ceiba - Jeff Tunks can eat whatever he wants whenever he wants.

Therein lies the problem.

So, every single day during the past year, when not dishing up the richest cuisine the nation's capital has to offer, an overweight Tunks has quietly ducked into a Subway sandwich shop next door to DC Coast and ordered a 12-inch turkey, lettuce and tomato sub on whole-wheat bread - hold the cheese.

So far, the 6-foot-3-inch chef has lost more than 120 pounds.