John Robert McClure was a quartermaster petty officer on the USS Zaniah when it was commissioned in 1944 in Mobile, Ala.
J.C. Ponder was a lieutenant junior grade paymaster.
Known as the Bloody Z, it was a cargo ship that delivered equipment and other goods to the war zone and was capable of producing 80,000 gallons of fresh water. Perhaps more importantly, the ship carried men to repair ships damaged in the South Pacific during World War II.
McClure and Ponder were onboard the Zaniah in October 1944 for the invasion of Letye in the Philippines, which was led by General Douglas MacArthur. The ship then sailed for Okinawa. What would become the bloodiest battle of the war began on April 1, 1945 – Easter Sunday and April Fools Day. It lasted 82 days.
It was the battle of more – more ships, more bombs, more troops, more guns, more deaths. In all, 38,000 Americans died, 107,000 Japanese and Okinawans, 100,000 Okinawan civilians.
Shortly after the campaign ended, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.
The war ended.
McClure and Ponder ultimately returned home, to different lives.
McClure came to Greenville and founded Morningside Baptist Church on Pelham Road.
Ponder went to work for R.J. Reynolds and then Burlington Industries.
McClure and his wife Frances had five children. He retired from the pastorate after 17 years to establish Christian radio stations all over the country.
Ponder didn’t marry for many years. Then he met and married Elizabeth Fisher, an elementary school teacher. They never had children.
McClure and Ponder had no contact with each other in all those years.
Then 1985, in Hickory, N.C., at a reunion for sailors who served on the Bloody Z, they met again.
They realized they lived a few miles apart, McClure in Simpsonville; Ponder in Greer. McClure had lived in the Greenville area since the 1940s, Ponder moved here in 1979.
They kept in touch after that, trading war stories and memories.
Then about six months ago, McClure and his daughter Carolyn Robinson were at a funeral. McClure pulled her over and said, “This is my buddy. We served on the same ship.”
Robinson was astonished. The coincidence of these two men, now in their 80s, living all these years in the same town without knowing it was amazing to her. Another astonishing fact was Ponder was married to Robinson’s third grade teacher.
Robinson asked Ponder if he had his war medals.
“No, ma’am, I don’t,” he said.
She had gotten her father’s as a father’s day present some years before so she was familiar with the government red tape and paperwork and helped Ponder apply to the Department of Defense.
She also got him a seat on the same Honor Flight her father was to go on. Honor Flights take WWII veterans to Washington, D.C., for a day to see the WWII Memorial, an honor many would not have otherwise.
It is a race against time. The youngest veteran of the war would be 80 now and the Veteran’s Administration says about 740 WWII veterans die every day. Of 16 million who served, about 1.7 million are still living.
The two took the flight on Sept. 20.
They saw the Memorial. They posed for pictures in front of the statue of Iwo Jima.
“It was the best day of my life,” Ponder said.
When McClure, 85, and Ponder, 88, came off the plane at Greenville Spartanburg International Airport that night, Robinson was waiting.
And so were Ponder’s service medals. Robinson had received them, gotten them framed in a shadow box and presented them to him at the airport.
The next day he called and asked how much he owed her for the framing.
She said, “Nothing, you’ve already paid me.”