Private First Class John Legg grew up in Tioga, West Virginia, another of Depression Era kid who sought escape and opportunity through service to his country. He joined the Army Air Force, where he was trained to be a teletype operator and clerk.
On December 8, 1941, Legg was stationed at Nielson Field on Luzon, Philippines, and might have been one of the clerks who sent the teletype warning to Clark Field that it was about to be hit by a Japanese air attack. Legg was an aspiring writer who wanted to pen a novel about the Philippines. His experiences there had given him much inspiration, and he’d been keeping notes for what he hoped would be his first book. In his off-duty hours, he wrote poetry as well.
He was not a rifleman; he was not a special operations sniper. Legg was one of those anonymous young Americans who carried out one of the mundane daily duties that keeps a military organization functioning. The jobs have zero glamour, and historians rarely even make mention of their jobs, let alone those who filled them. Legg was captured when the Philippines fell in the spring of 1942. He survived the Death March and made it to Cabantuan prison camp, but the ordeal had wrecked his health. He steadily declined, suffering from dysentery and malaria until he died on August 16, 1942.
His mother was notified via telegram the following year of his death. A short letter followed the telegram a week later. It ended with this sentence:
“May the thought that he gave his life for his country as unselfishly and heroically as if he had died on the field of battle, be a source of sustaining comfort to you.”
Small comfort to a West Virginia mother who would not even learn of the exact date of her son’s death until 1946.
John Legg had a writer’s eye and heart. In On Writing, Stephen King wrote that most people either are born with the talent and it can be honed, or they just don’t have it. No amount of effort or work can replace that innate gene that makes a truly gifted writer. Legg was one of those who had the innate talent.
The world lost a beautiful mind when he died in captivity. Had he lived and realized his potential, one wonders how his words could have affected and changed those who read them. His death was but a tiny piece of a mosiac that stretched the globe. So much lost potential. So many discoveries, inventions, changes and art lost to all of us with the deaths of so many souls. One wonders how much further we could have advanced and evolved as a species had we not lost so many millions like young John Legg.
Only a few examples of his talent survive. Here is one of his poems that he wrote sometime in 1941 while feeling far from home out on the edge of America’s Pacific ramparts.
Beyond the fields of clover bloom
Beyond wheat fields so green
Far past the dust of traveled roads
Where travelers all convene.
Where we hear not the rattling wagon
The hum and grind of the mill
There is a place, known just to me
Where everything is still
A path lies winding through the woods
And leads to a sheltered grove
Of maple, beech, dogwood and pine
That form a shaded cove.
Within, a space is almost bare
Of briars and vines that creep
And here a carpet of flowers and moss,
Lies green, and soft, and deep.
A sparkling spring from an unknown depth
Flows upward; in it one finds
A thirst consoling, icy draft
Sweeter than goblets of wine.
The silence is unbroken here
Hour after hour the same
Unless a bird calls to its mate
Or a tree frog croaks for rain.
In this shaded cover, one soon may be
In the peace of contentment, the best
And knowing there is naught to harm
One may think, or in sleep, on may rest.
In the stillness one’s thoughts often wonder
To things gone behind, far away.
One remembers some happenings of life,
With gladness, and others….dismay.
Your dreams are made real by surroundings,
You picture a castle so fair
And awake to find sad disappointments,
In that your dreams vanished in air.
And then one may just sit and gaze
Into the sky, so far away, so blue.
And think how happy you would be
If only your dreams could come true.
If you are sometimes tired of life,
When friends forget, and there seems
To be no joy, break away and come
To the woodland cove, and dream.
–PFC John M. Legg