Originally created 02/08/00

Memoir chronicles Georgia hero's wartime journey

JEFFERSON, Ga. -- Life is changing fast for Damon Gause.

More than half a century ago, the Jefferson man's father died a hero of World War II. Now Mr. Gause himself has become a hero to many Americans -- not so much because he saw to it that his father's wartime memoir was published, but because of why he did it.

The War Journal of Major Damon `Rocky' Gause: The Firsthand Account of One of the Greatest Escapes of World War II, is the book. Reviews suggest the title is no exaggeration.

But to Mr. Gause, it's not just his father's story, but the story of a whole generation.

"This is the American story, the American spirit," Mr. Gause said of his father's escape from Japanese-occupied Philippines. "It's a tribute to the entire World War II generation of fighting men and women. The rest of us are here because of what they did."

The response Mr. Gause has gotten in the three months since the journal was published suggests the book has touched a chord with Americans. Mr. Gause has received more than 1,000 e-mails and letters in the months since -- three to five handwritten letters and 10 to 12 e-mails almost every day, he estimates.

Veterans' groups, literary clubs and colleges have asked Mr. Gause to speak. He recently lectured at the University of Georgia.

Mr. Gause is more than glad for all the contacts because it's one of the reasons he wanted to see his father's book in print. But there are only so many hours in the day.

Mr. Gause is co-owner of two Jefferson businesses with his son Lance: Uncle Buck's Portable Buildings and the Damon and Lance Gause Construction and Development Co. Since the book came out, Lance has had to take over more business responsibility, Mr. Gause said.

"I don't see how I could get any busier," he said. "I'm just fortunate enough to have an old-enough child to take up the slack."

The e-mails and letters Mr. Gause has gotten so far might just be the beginning, though.

Almost as soon as the book was published, Disney's Miramax company paid a "comfortable" option for the movie rights to the story, his father's account of how he and an American officer named Lloyd Osborne made their way from the Philippines to Australia -- a journey of 159 days and 3,200 miles of sea.

The book was reviewed two weeks ago in The New York Times by Christopher Dickey, son of another famous World War II veteran, the late James Dickey. The Book of the Month Club will make the book one of its monthly selections.

Mr. Gause learned recently that a Japanese publisher plans a translation.

Mr. Gause was surprised because the Japanese are not portrayed kindly in the book. But a representative of the Japanese publisher explained the company's motivation.

"He told me, `The Bushido code states you are not to ever surrender or give up, but continue to fight. Your father will be a hero in Japanese eyes, even though your father fought against them,"' Mr. Gause said.

The true story seems just the kind of tale that could be a box office blockbuster, beginning on the last day of 1941 with the dashing young Army Air Corps pilot dancing in the arms of a beautiful young woman named Rita Garcia in the ballroom of a downtown hotel in Manila, the Philippine capital. Rocky Gause, 26, had dropped out of the University of Georgia to become a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps and life was changing -- for him and the rest of the world.

Just months out of air cadet school, he had been sent to the Philippines in November 1941, the month before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and dragged the United States into World War II.

As Rocky and Rita dance, the Japanese invasion of the Philippines is just days away, and they all know it. Rocky and Rita met when Rocky stopped to help the young woman following an accident. He saved her life, she says. She would return the favor later, after he made his daring escape.

Rocky's story moves on to April 1942, when U.S. military forces retreat to Bataan, a peninsula of the large Philippine island of Luzon, then surrender to the occupying Japanese.

But Rocky opts out. He plunges a knife into a Japanese sentry, deciding he'd rather take his chances on escape than the kindness of his Japanese captors.

Rocky makes his way back to Rita and her family, who take him in, nurse him back to health and shelter him from the Japanese. The family moves him from island to island until Rocky meets another American escapee, the young officer Osborne. They decide to buy a boat with a $700 IOU and sail it to Australia.

Somehow, they make it -- guided only by a small brass compass, the gift of a man in the terminal stages of leprosy, and a small National Geographic map of the region. When the sun-browned pair finally arrive in Australia, they are at first arrested because no one could believe what they had done.

Rocky, a Jefferson native, soon came back to Georgia a decorated hero and spent months with his wife, Ruth -- Damon's mother -- while he promoted the sale of war bonds for the U.S. War Department.

But Rocky's story does not end happily. After pleading to return to combat, he is assigned to the European theater. In 1944, shortly after Damon was born, Rocky died at an air base in England testing a fighter plane modified to be a dive bomber.

While the prospects of a Hollywood movie and being named a Book of the Month Club selection can lead to big money and a certain amount of fame, that's not important to Mr. Gause, he said.

"It's put me in closer contact with many of the men I respect most -- World War II veterans," said Mr. Gause, 56, who was a frequent speaker at veterans' groups even before the book's publication.

The book fulfilled the long dream of his mother, who still lives in Jefferson. She always wanted to see it in print, Mr. Gause said.

Mr. Gause's father hoped to have the book published 57 years ago, but the War Department nixed the idea -- too many of the Philippine families named in the book who helped Rocky and other Americans could be at risk, defense officials said at the time.

As the years rolled by, Mr. Gause thought idly about trying to get the journal published, but "we got busy raising children, families," he recalled. "Looking back, why didn't I do it 20 years ago? I didn't realize there would be this much interest in what one soldier did among thousands and thousands of soldiers."

But one day about four years ago, he looked at his mother, reflected that "she was getting up in age" and recalled that she had always told him that his father wanted to have his account published.

"I thought, `I'm not following through on what my father's wishes were, and I'm not going to have my mother forever,"' Mr. Gause said.

With some advice from a Jefferson newspaper publisher and Howard Berk, a member of the University of Georgia journalism department who helps faculty members get their books published, Mr. Gause wound up with a New York literary agent -- just in time to catch the wave of interest in World War II that followed the movie Saving Private Ryan.

"What keyed this was family interest," Mr. Gause said. "There are so many of us who have loved ones who were involved in the war, parents or grandparents, who are getting up in age."

And more and more of those people are contacting Mr. Gause, touched by his father's journal and by the love and devotion of a son who only knew his father through that journal and through the accounts of his mother and grandparents.

To make those contacts, Mr. Gause put his mailing address, e-mail address and telephone number in the back of the book.

Mr. Gause wants to hear from still more people, especially if anyone can help him track down the men and women named in his father's account.

Mr. Gause is still trying to find Rita Garcia. The Philippines equivalent of the FBI and a college professor in the Pacific country have joined in to track her down.

"My mother owes her a hug around the neck for what she did to help my dad get out," Mr. Gause said.

But Mr. Gause says there were many, many tales just as stirring as that of his father -- "an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary times," in his son's words.

"This whole generation, they pulled together for a common cause. And if they hadn't won the big one, where would we be today?"


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