Harry Reese John, 79, military safety activist

May 11, 1994|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,Sun Staff Writer

Harry Reese John, a decorated World War II combat Marine who fought for sweeping changes in Marine Corps boot camp training after the questionable death of his son at Parris Island, S.C., collapsed and died yesterday at his home in Northeast Baltimore. He was 79.

He died of complications from liver cancer, his family said.

In 1971, Mr. John's son Warren -- a graduate of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and Towson State University -- was hospitalized with 39 other members of his boot camp platoon at Parris Island. They suffered a condition called rhabdomyolosis, commonly called "athlete's kidney," brought on by excessive exercise.

Several weeks later, Private John was returned to training and later collapsed and died after a long run and additional push-ups administered by drill instructors (DIs) as punishment for falling out of formation.

Harry and Dorothy John discovered soon after they buried their son that of the 79 days he had served in the Marine Corps, 54 were in the hospital, sick bays and base dispensaries.

But the Navy Department, which oversees the Marine Corps, was not forthcoming with information about Warren John's death. Telephone calls to Parris Island went unanswered, letters to Pentagon officials got no response.

The elder Mr. John nearly turned to violence in frustration and anger. "They didn't realize that I was going to get to the bottom of my son's death, if it was the last thing I did on earth," Mr. John said in a 1977 interview. "But when I sank to my lowest, I somehow turned to prayer. I was thinking very seriously of going to Parris Island and killing the three DIs who killed my son."

He recently reflected on that time. "Thankfully, I had the advice of my family and friends . . .," he said. "I never made that trip to Parris Island. I've been in close touch with the man upstairs ever since then."

The Johns sued the Marine Corps for $10 million in 1977 and were featured on CBS television news by Walter Cronkite. The suit was dismissed but other families began contacting the John family. Accounts of other deaths and injuries were documented.

Finally, on orders from Gen. Louis H. Wilson, Marine Commandant, sweeping changes were initiated in Marine recruit training. "General Wilson knew Marines had to be tough," Mr. John said then. "But he knew that you didn't have to kill young men in making them that way."

Mr. John was born on Gough Street in Highlandtown. He drove a beer truck for a number of breweries for more than 40 years and delivered to clubs and liquor stores along Baltimore's Block and in the city's neighborhoods.

The Johns reared two sons and a daughter on a quiet street off Belair Road.

But his association with the Marine Corps defined him as a dedicated soldier and citizen.

In his late twenties, he lied to enlist in the Marines to fight in World War II, sayinghe was 18. A corporal, he was a forward observer and often worked alone in combat, calling in artillery strikes on enemy soldiers. He participated in the invasions of Guadalcanal and Okinawa and received the Purple Heart. On Okinawa, he recounted recently, he called in artillery fire that killed hundreds of Japanese soldiers.

On another occasion, he and other Marines had set up a night ambush at a crossroads. "We heard voices coming up the road," he said. "They weren't speaking English and we were plenty scared. So we opened up with our heavy machine guns. In the morning, we found several nuns and some kids. I had nightmares about it afterward."

Although Mr. John had undergone chemotherapy for the last two years for cancer, his will and determination never wavered, said Jay John, his son.

Sen. Paul Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, helped the John family while a member of the House of Representatives. "Harry John was special," the senator said yesterday. "He loved the Marines and he loved his son -- the two came into conflict. Harry John persevered all the way."

George Wilson, who covered the John case for the Washington Post, wrote to Mr. John after changes were made at Parris Island. "You -- more than any other citizen -- can take credit for forcing changes that no doubt will save a future Warren in the U.S. Marine Corps," the letter said. "How long the reforms will last, you and I cannot foretell. But you did light a candle rather than just curse the darkness. And no more can be asked of any man."

Services will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at the John C. Miller Funeral Home, 6415 Belair Road, Baltimore.

Other survivors include his wife of 53 years and a daughter, Patricia Brownlee of Baltimore; and four grandchildren.

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