Pershing Devore, a true hero: World War II veteran not afraid to talk about his past
Pershing Devore wears a smile and will say without giving it up that he has left behind the days that took the youthful grins — and, in long and painful fashion, the lives — of so many of his buddies in the opening attacks of World War II.
Not that he can abandon the experience entirely. He did commit to paper his recollections of the Bataan Death March and his survival in a Japanese concentration camp. He deflects efforts to resurrect those memories to the pages he wrote about his experience in the Philippines, from the outbreak of the war on Dec. 7, 1941, to Jan. 31, 1944, when U.S. Army Rangers liberated Devore and his compatriots from the prison camps of Cabanatuan in the Philippines in what became known as “The Great Raid.”
The raid itself has been depicted in several movies, including one of the same name. Devore’s story also was told in “Tears in the Darkness” about the Bataan Death March.
And he will say in a frank tone that he was “A Battling Bastard of Bataan, no mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam.”
The ditty goes on, reflecting the sense of the survivors of the death march and subsequent imprisonment that they had been abandoned by their country, a sense they had until the day of the raid 25 miles behind Japanese lines that freed them.
In Cabanatuan alone, Devore wrote in several pages of recollections of his experiences leading up to and including his capture and eventual freedom, 2,300 Americans had died by the end of 1942. One day, 60 died. The emaciated cadavers were borne to the cemetery by prisoners almost equally cadaverous.
“The living lined the roads, saluting the dead, dully contemplating when their turns would come. Out where the bodies were deposited en masse in graves that filled with water before they could be completely dug, gaunt arms, legs and torsos habitually protruded from the mud,” he wrote.
“These stark facts about Japanese mass murder I have set down because I’ve noticed a tendency here at home to forget, even almost to forgive, the enormity of Japan’s war crimes. I do not want the American people to forget.”
Devore has no interest himself in forgetting, but he also chose not to allow the three years of his life spent in the prison camp to determine the rest of them, which will number 95 in May.
He was born in eastern Colorado near Wray and christened Quentin Pershing Devore, for Quentin Roosevelt, the son of President Theodore Roosevelt slain in World War I, and General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, who led American expeditionary forces in the same war and later, prophetically perhaps, the Philippine-American War.
Of his names, Devore said, his mother “gave it to me with both barrels.”
Metaphorically speaking, she wouldn’t be alone.
Rather than be drafted, Devore volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1938 and was sent to the Philippines in 1941. There, he recalled, Gen. Douglas MacArthur greeted the Air Corps saying he didn’t need the air force to whip the Japanese, “he could do it with the Filipinos, which made us all feel uneasy because our squadron came with 34 B-17s.”
On Dec. 7, the Japanese attacked the Philippines soon after they bombed Pearl Harbor. One blast left shrapnel in him that still remains.
Over the years of his captivity, Devore survived dysentery, malaria, malnutrition and several other illnesses.
Once the war was over, Devore rebounded quickly, he said, due in no small part to good advice.
“I did well,” he said. “I did what the doctors told me to do. I never drank or smoked.”
His Colorado farm background didn’t hurt, either, Devore said.
Six boys from Yuma County were in the death march “and every one came back,” he said.
In 1945, he married Dorothy Ann Devlin, a union that lasted 64 years, and eventually he landed a job as the city manager of Wray. He went on to take a similar job in Yuma and in 1960 became the city manager of Longmont.
“I never got fired” as city manager, he said, but he did tire of “petty political pressures.”
Still, the business of running a city appealed to him because of the constant level of activity.
“Either somebody was picking on you or you were doing something good for your city,” he said.
Eventually he took a job with the Colorado Department of Highways — the predecessor to the state Department of Transportation — as a utilities inspector, where he remained for 20 years until he retired.
Today he lives in a Grand Junction home “that is just perfect for me.”
He moved to Grand Junction to be closer to Dennis Devore, one of his three sons.
He can play the organ, a skill he picked up in his years on the farm, where he learned to play for dances. He might also be able to play stringed instruments, but for the loss of calluses on his fingertips.
He has plenty of manual dexterity though, he said, showing off the sewing platform he set up in his closet. Mostly he uses his trusty Singer to hem his pants.
He sold his boat, but he’s still hoping to get out this summer on Vega Reservoir or the Cottonwood Lakes atop Grand Mesa, he said.
“I’ve caught some big fish,” he said, all the way to the time he learned to cast on streams out of artesian wells in northeastern Colorado.
Earlier this year, he was made an honorary member of the Grand Valley Combined Honor Guard, an honor Devore said was “the greatest thing ever.”
As he approaches 95, “Pershing is certainly a fascinating fellow and a true hero, at a time when true heroes are becoming increasingly harder to find,” said Dick Gigliotti, director of the Veterans Memorial Cemetery of Western Colorado.
Devore has nearly a century of life behind him, survival of a death march and a brutal concentration camp in a military background foreshadowed, perhaps, by his given and middle names. In civilian life, he managed growing cities, helped maintain a road network across the state and the Continental Divide. He had a marriage of 64 years and he has three sons, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild, whose grin graces the slideshow on his desktop computer, where he spends much of his time.
So, it sounds as though, after all that, he beat his captors and critics. In the end, he won.
At that thought, Devore says nothing. But he smiles.