United States Marine Corps – Corporal
2nd Marine Brigade
World War II (1941 – 1945) and Korean War (1950 – 1951)
Presidential Unit Citation
James Dukes was born in Putnam, Alabama, on October 24, 1922, and grew up in Whistler, Alabama. After dropping out of high school before his junior year in order to work and make money for his family, Dukes decided to enlist in the United States Marine Corps in 1941. His older brother was a merchant seaman during World War II. Dukes respected his brother’s service and admired seeing the marines parade in on board during Mardi Gras, where they conducted themselves in a sharp military manner. Ultimately, Dukes enlisted in World War II because he had always wanted to be a marine. “Everything they did was important to me, and I wanted to fight and do something,” he declared.
Thus, Dukes began his three-month boot camp training at the Marine Corps Base in San Diego, California, in March of 1941. “We learned to march, to keep our mouth shut, and to do what the instructors told us,” he said, reflecting on the serious and effective training. The training was rigorous and difficult, but Duke’s desire to be a marine allowed him to cope and enjoy the experience. He earned a military specialty there in operating mortar and light machine guns.
Immediately after boot camp, Dukes was sent to field training, which simulated real combat. On December 7th, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and that marked the start of Dukes’ first assignment to defend the naval district at the time in San Diego. This assignment, lasting about a month, included tasks such as commandeering ships. There, Dukes was ranked a Private First Class.
On January 20, Dukes arrived at his first assignment outside of the United States: the island of Samoa, where he became Corporal. He was proud to have been promoted to Corporal; he knew people who remained Private First Class the entire time and understood the accomplishment he had made. In Samoa, Dukes lived in the village of Leone amongst the natives in fale houses for camouflage effect. With the constant threat of enemies approaching, Dukes recalls having to carry his gun at all times, including when he went to Church. The living situations were very different from what he was used to, but the food was fairly good considering the situation, and there was always some form of entertainment. “The girls didn’t wear anything above the waist,” Dukes added with a laugh.
Dukes thoroughly enjoyed his experience at Samoa setting up a mortar position on the mountain and firing over the village for accuracy, even though it was rough. He and his comrades loaded up afterwards and headed towards Guadalcanal, where he was in command, and landed at another island to practice landing. It was difficult at times, but he was strongly motivated because he knew he would be punished if he gave up.
At Guadalcanal, Dukes performed unbelievable tasks in trying to defeat the Japanese. His determined service earned him many medals, including the Presidential Unit Citation. He came into contact with the Japanese several times throughout his service and witnessed many of his comrades and friends become wounded or even die. Not many people were willing to aid those injured, and the lack of supplies spread hunger and made it more difficult for the soldiers to fight. A Navy admiral pulled all the ships away, leaving Dukes and his comrades with no gasoline for planes, no ammunition, no bombs, “no nothing.” It seemed as though they had no source of support, but they were able to successfully fight against the Japanese. “They were able to get quite a few of our guys, too,” Dukes recollects. Because Dukes was the Corporal and in command, he tried to remain calm and encourage his comrades.
He did receive an injury once, though. A mortar shattered the bone in his knee, though it was deemed an accident. This ended his fighting career, and Dukes spent thirteen months in the hospital. He was then taken to New Zealand in late January of 1943 to spend another six months in a mobile hospital. One of Dukes’ friends visited him in the hospital, asking him to visit his brother in San Francisco because his wife wanted a divorce. Dukes had never been there in all his life, and of all things, he was shipped to none other than San Francisco for more treatment. His friend died shortly after, so his new mission was to notify the family of his death. His comrade’s brother’s family was very welcoming and invited him to stay for dinner and to come visit again. Back at the hospital, Dukes’ comrade’s brother’s daughter came to visit him. However, she was so repulsed by the injuries of other soldiers that she refused to go back. Therefore, Dukes visited their house often.
Finally, Dukes married the daughter of the brother of his friend who had visited him in New Zealand. He was released from service soon after in Napa at the Navy yard. Upon his release, Dukes felt he was received very well by his fellow Americans and the Navy. Dukes had finally retired from his war service and was ready to move on to civilian life. He was introduced to a colonel at Hunter Harrison Street in San Francisco who was stationed at the head quarters for the Marine Corps. The colonel assigned him work at the first Ford dealer of America. There, he worked on repairing equipment, growing a great passion for the craft.
Realizing his talent for repair, a friend of Dukes from the hospital urged him to work at his watch repair shop. This ultimately released Dukes from the hospital. Dukes proved to be natural, claiming that “this type of working was good for him.” He now called himself a true watchmaker.
Dukes then went back home to Alabama to reunite with his family. One day, he went to the job headquarters in town and asked for a watchmaking job amidst the mayhem of veterans trying to get money compensation for their service. The employees were happy to give him a job and told him he could choose to work at any jewelry store around. He chose to work at the store of a respected man, Mr. Gabriel. Dukes spent two years making a living for his wife and children as a watchmaker.
Then, due to his wife’s need to be closer to her parents, Dukes moved back to San Francisco with his family. Dukes began to work for a merchant who owned a jewelry store, which proved his return to San Francisco to be a “good move.” The store became one of the greatest in San Francisco, but he was released from his job in 1949 due to the concurrent recession. Dukes pursued his passion as he was hired immediately after on Gerry Street at another jewelry company. However, James quit soon after because “they did awful things.”
Dukes was then recommended by an officer to sign up to work at Alcatraz Island as a correctional officer. He took the test, got the job, and began to work. However, when the Korean War broke out, Dukes was ordered to go down to Camp Pendleton in San Diego by the Marine Corps, and Dukes loyally went down to his assignment. But due to his leg injury, he couldn’t do much in his assignment and wasn’t payed for five months.
After such a fluke, Dukes was ready to get back into a serious job, and he took over a jewelry business, operating it for three years. After this stint, Dukes signed up to be a highway patrolman with one of his buddies in Santa Barbara. Dukes pursued this practice for twenty-eight years until the program closed, when he decided to settle down in Marin County.
Now retired from both military and civilian life, Dukes focused on becoming involved in veteran organizations and unions. Dukes joined many organizations and attended reunions “up to [his] neck.” Dukes made an endeavoring move by setting up and overseeing the Marine Corps Birthday Luncheon in Marin County for thirty-three years. He then turned over the presidential position to his son. Dukes is also the three times past president of the Corte Madera Lion’s Club and a past president of the Marin County Peace Officers Association.
Dukes’ post-war involvement in veterans organizations and reunions portrays the passion of a man who served his country. When looking back on his war experience, Dukes recalls the toughest of times and the best of moments, altogether formulating an experience Dukes will never forget.
When Dukes is asked to expand on a challenging moment of his service, he reflects upon the Battle of Guadalcanal. He remembers the Navy pulling out of the harbor and leaving his unit without any food, gas, or ammunition. Dukes recalls taking charge with his strong mindset and keeping things in control by being resourceful. Another harsh moment during the war was when Dukes and his comrades were about to leave the Island of Samoa but wanted to explore the island for some “souveniers.” When going through the endless stretches of forest, one of Dukes’ closest buddies was shot down by a hidden Japanese soldier. Dukes also recalls one of the many scares encountered during his service. Dukes was walking with one of his comrades who thought he saw a Japanese hiding in the coconut trees above. Out of fear, the comrade abruptly shot his gun, piercing the surrounding silence with its fire. There turned out to be no Japanese in the trees. “Such an encounter shows you how things get fouled up at war,” Dukes remarked.
While there were many grim moments in the war, Dukes also remembers funny and enjoyable experiences. He recalls playing a practical joke on one of his comrades. Dukes had taken a grenade and poured out the explosive powder within. When his comrade approached him, he began to throw it up and down, handling it very casually. His comrade, thinking Dukes was out of his mind, shouted, “Hey! What are you doing?!” Taking that as his cue, Dukes hit the pin on the grenade, and “it went pop!”. His comrade bolted to the floor, seeking protection. However, the grenade did not explode, and he lay there on the floor, looking foolish. Dukes stood there laughing while his friend stormed up to him all flustered and said, “I wanna shoot you right now!”
Dukes also looks back at one of the most sanctifying moments during his war service. Due to harsh conditions, he and his fellow personnel had gone a couple of months without having the chance to bathe. However, on one of their expeditions on the island, he and his comrades encountered the Matanikau River. The soldiers seized the opportunity to finally freshen up. “It felt so good to get in the water and take a bath after such a long time,” Dukes commented on the refreshing moment. Dukes also believes one of his most memorable moments to be during his treatment in New Zealand. Dukes met wonderful and outstanding natives of the land, and he and his wife have visited a few times.
Through the bad times and the good, Dukes believes his war efforts were definitely justified. “If we had failed, you’d be speaking Japanese right now,” Dukes said emphasizing his point. Dukes believes he was able to get through the whole experience because of his stable outlook towards life. “I just moved along and enjoyed it,” he explained. In fact, Dukes loved his war experience and believes he did the right things while fortunately being able to to live through it.
Now an experienced man who has seen and done so much during his lifetime, Dukes has valuable advice for future servers of war. “Get up and go with them,” he urges. He wants everyone to able to be a part of such a profound experience like he was.
Interviewed by Gabriella Aversa and Kathryn Khalvati on August 10, 2011.