How Jack Earle Survived Pearl Harbor

The number 13 is considered unlucky by a lot of people, but 13 words saved the life of Col. John H. (Jack) Earle, USMC (Ret). He often jokingly attributed his good luck in life to Zeus, the god of ancient Greek mythology. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

I had the privilege to know the colonel and his family in the late 1950s when my dad was stationed at Kaneohe Air Station in Hawaii. We lived across the street from the Earles, and I spent a great deal of my time with their son, Tom. I was 10, and in my mind Col. Earle was the quintessential Marine officer: ramrod straight, knowledgeable, energetic, strong — and always carrying a slightly mischievous twinkle in his eye. His wife, Barbara, was the most beautiful woman I’d ever set eyes on. His energy was legendary. I remember him coming into their house one evening saying, “Wow. I got in some flying time, we skied, and did some snorkeling — and it’s only Saturday.”

When we first moved to Hawaii, Dad and I were assigned temporary quarters in a vacant BOQ (bachelor officer quarters) with the colonel and his family. We had the entire upper floor and the Earles, who had arrived on station when we did, had the bottom floor. One day I was in one of the many rooms on their floor talking to their youngest daughter, Jane, when the colonel traversed the entire hallway from the showers to their room, singing the “Marine Corps Hymn” and wearing only a pair of flip flops. Jane was appalled.

But back to those 13 words.

Jack Earle had graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 1936 and accepted a reserve commission in the Marine Corps shortly after. Rising to the rank of captain, he was awarded one of the plum assignments at that time — commander of a Marine detachment on board a U.S. battleship. So on Saturday, Dec. 6, 1941, he left to assume his command of the Marine detachment aboard the USS Arizona.

Although he and Barbara had an apartment on Waikiki, he had decided to spend his first night on the ship. After the ceremony, he was below deck doing some of the voluminous paperwork involved with his transfer when Maj. Alan Shapley, the officer Earle was replacing, said to him, “Hell, Jack, all this will be here tomorrow. Why don’t you go home?”

So he did.

The following day, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor sank the Arizona, claiming the lives of 1,177 crew members on board. Whether Zeus had anything to do with Earle’s luck that day is debatable, but what is abundantly clear is that Jack’s life seemed blessed by good fortune all the way through.

The colonel died in 2007. In his eulogy his son Tom wrote: “Twenty-five centuries ago, Euripides, the Athenian playwright, noted of Zeus, ‘Sweetly he blows on this man’s sails and on that man’s, making those men happy.’” Surely Euripides’ words apply to Jack. His time on Earth was well-lived, a life upon which the wind of good fortune blew for 92 years. Would that we all could be as blessed as he.

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