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THE LAST OF THE LIONS

There once was a generation of men who knew how to get things done. They rolled up their sleeves and took apart their cars to learn how to fix them. They could work a full week, coach little league by night, chair their Rotary Club on the weekends, hand out communion on Sundays, and still have the nicest lawn in town. They seemed allergic to laziness and lying. Bragging was a sign of weakness. And so they quietly left a lifetime of accomplishments in their wakes, letting them fall silently on ears like giant trees whooshing to the forest floor.


They’re called the Greatest Generation, but unless you’ve witnessed one of them in person, these men can sound like mythical heroes out of a long lost time—almost too legendary to be real. There are very few of these men left, so we must listen intently to those who remain.


Ninety-four years old but sturdy as a cement truck, Jim Rogers dissects his hearty plate of bacon, eggs, sausage and toast. To his right is a giant magnifying glass mounted on the kitchen table that he uses to read the Wall Street Journal that’s been delivered to his home in Ramsey, New Jersey for the better part of a century. “We’re not a pioneering people,” Jim jokes, while manhandling a piece of bacon in his mitts. “We haven’t gone too far.” Yet that’s hardly the case. The life of Jim Rogers spans continents and conflicts, his boot prints found in the some of the most pivotal pages of history—even if he’s too modest to admit it.


A hearty breakfast like this was a rarity when Jim was growing up at the end of the New York City bus line in Queens during the Depression. His family of five lived in a three-bedroom, Spanish-style home that had stucco walls, a flat tile roof, and a small lawn that needed to be mowed. His father bought the home in 1927 for $4,300. Two years later, the stock market crashed and tough times descended upon them and the rest of the country.


But the Rogers family had resilience coursing through their veins. Jim’s father, James Andrew Rogers traced his roots back to the Revolutionary War. He had been forced to grow up fast when his father died suddenly at the age of forty-five. A policeman, James Florence Rogers had jumped into the East River to save some one’s life. Two weeks later, he came down with pneumonia and died, leaving behind three children and a wife.


So it was that at the ripe age of eleven, with his older brother having joined the Navy, Jim’s father dropped out of grammar school and got a job to support his mother and younger sister. Despite only having a fifth grade education, he landed a job on Wall Street at the age of fourteen as a runner for Hayden Stone. In those days, when anybody bought a stock or bond, a piece of paper that recorded the transaction was hand-delivered by a runner.


Equipped with street smarts and an exquisite memory for names and numbers, Jim’s father learned finance from the ground up and ascended as a prominent man on Wall Street.

So much so that when the market crashed nineteen years later and more than thirteen million people lost their jobs, Jim’s father wasn’t one of them. Hayden Stone kept him employed, albeit after cutting his salary in half. Remarkably, he would remain with the same company for more than seventy years, finally retiring at the age of eighty-two. When he returned home after his retirement party, wearing the watch Hayden Stone awarded him for all his years of faithful service, his wife Margaret remarked with a coy smile: “I thought you said you had a steady job?”


During the Depression, the Rogers clan came together like a clenched fist, teaching young Jim about the intrinsic importance of family. His uncle, Jim Ganley, his mother’s brother, came to live with them for what would amount to a six year stay. As a member of NY State National Guard’s 27th Division, Ganley and his brothers had fought in some of the most significant battles of the Great War, donning gas masks to endure the brutal war of attrition. After the war, when the Depression hit, Ganley was working in a bank and could very well have saved his job. But when he learned that a fellow employee with a family was going to be fired instead of him, Ganley abruptly resigned. He eventually got work in FDR’s Veterans Conservation Core, chopping down trees and clearing forests in the Adirondacks. During the holidays, Ganley returned to Jim’s home where he’d resume his post in his special chair, smoking his pipe, and regaling Jim and his brothers with stories of the war. So enraptured was young Jim Rogers by these stories that he would often take to doodling scenes of American soldiers shooting down Germans with machine gun fire.

*

The oldest of three boys, Jim enjoyed a rather idyllic childhood given the circumstances. He fished for carp in the steams that poured into Jamaica Bay, crabbed in the canals around what is today JFK airport, and chased the coal truck around town in hopes of snagging a hunk of fuel to bring home for the family furnace. Jim’s father eventually got him a job as a gofer at Hayden Stone. It was a menial position, fetching coffee and making mail runs, but it came with one major perk.


Hayden Stone picked up the $260 tuition for Jim to attend Saint John’s College in the Bronx. He always wanted to attend Notre Dame, having grown up listening to the Fighting Irish on the radio and idolizing giants the likes of Andy Pilney, Frank Carideo and Marchie Schwartz. Still his enrollment at Saint John’s was a proud moment for the Rogers family. The son of a fifth grade dropout pursuing his college degree, in chemistry no less, was the American Dream realized.


However, after just a year in college, Jim wanted nothing more than to graduate. There was a bigger test on the horizon. After years watching Hitler aggressively gobble up Europe, the United States had finally entered the war. Suddenly Jim’s childhood doodles of American soldiers fighting the Germans was coming to life, and the pangs of patriotism were almost too much for him to bear.


“Everybody was pitching in,” he remembers. “Everybody had something to do. That was the problem. All my buddies had gone before me. My brother was in the Navy. And I was still hanging around carrying books. I felt like a real jerk.” So Jim worked double time at Saint Johns and graduated in just three years. He received his diploma in August of 1943 and enlisted in the navy a month later.


In September of 1943, Jim took the rail to Chicago where he started midshipman’s school outside of the city at Northwestern University’s law and dental school. “I was one of those ninety-day wonders,” he says. After month as an apprentice shipman, he spent two months as an apprentice seaman, learning navigation, seamanship and gunnery. Emerging as an officer, Jim requested a position on a destroyer, but ended up being assigned to an amphibious vessel: Landing Craft Infantry, or LCI. Little did he know that the LCI would deliver him into the some of hottest action of the war.


Once while he was docked, Jim’s family joined him aboard the LCI for dinner. All of the senior officers were on leave, putting the twenty-year-old in command of the 160-foot vessel, which was docked alongside a destroyer on Pier 42. He and his family were about to sit for dinner, when word came down that the destroyer needed to move. There was just one problem: Jim’s LCI had to clear the way for it—and Jim had never conned the ship.

He swallowed hard, told his family to sit tight, and then went to the deck. Orchestrating his skeleton crew of green horns, he successfully maneuvered the vessel out into the North River, allowing the destroyer to pull out before returning to the dock. After the ship was securely tied up, he returned to his family below decks to resume dinner. Although his father, who had served in the Navy in World War I, didn’t say a word, the pride in his chest nearly popped the buttons off his shirt. His son was a real navy man.

*

On February 11, 1943, Jim’s LCI joined a convoy of sixty bound for North Africa. Between Bermuda and Cape Henry in Virginia, a storm kicked up. Winds howled against the gunnels and every time the officer on duty attempted to turn the ship, it would heel and threaten to flip. Jim clung to his bunk as the ship bucked violently and steamed helplessly off course. They soon lost the convoy in the storm.


Thankfully, one of the destroyers in the convoy spotted them floating off the fringes of their radar and came to their rescue. They steamed out to them and helped the LCI make the turn and navigate back to the rest of the fleet. But something unexpected happened in the storm. The LCI was carrying 10,000 gallons of drinking water, all of which was contaminated by cement wash during the storm. Despite all their attempts, the water couldn’t be filtered and was ultimately deemed undrinkable. Thus for the rest of their journey, Jim and his fellow crew subsisted on rations of pineapple and tomato juice.


Steaming nine knots an hour, the convoy covered two hundred miles a day for ten days, until Jim’s LCI broke off with the other eleven LCIs to deliver equipment to a US base in the Azores. They spent a few days of R&R on the Portuguese island before joining a destroyer bound for England. The course took them through a highly active submarine area. “We could hit 15 knots, but a submarine could go faster than us on the surface,” Jim explains. “If a sub came up, it could destroy all our ships with no trouble at all.” The days passed anxiously until Jim and his fellow crew started seeing American P-3Cs buzzing overhead. They arrived in England on March 6, 1944—and that’s when real training began.


At one-hundred-sixty-feet long with a 22-foot beam, Jim’s flat-bottomed LCI was unwieldy. The stern slammed against every wave so violently that the deck house had to be continually re-welded to prevent it from ripping right off the deck. Their training in England consisted of one central objective: delivering soldiers on to the beach. Timing was everything. Drop the stern anchor 300 yards or so from shore. Motor on to the beach. Get out the ramps. Secure them with guidelines. Unload the troops. Over and over and over. The maneuvers were performed outside the wire, beyond the submarine nets that warded off German subs and E-boats. So while this was technically practice, each day posed real risks of combat.


At the end of April, Jim’s LCI loaded the First Division on board to perform a large mock-landing on Slapton Sands Beach. As Jim and his crew executed the maneuvers they’d learn to do with their eyes closed, things suddenly got real. In the distance, explosions dotted the horizon and lit up the sky. The crew looked out with confused terror. They would find out much later that three German E-boats had snuck through the picket line and sank three 300-foot LCIs. Nine hundred American lives were lost.

*

On June 5, 1944, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote to the American armed forces. “Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Forces,” the future president began. “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.”


A day later, Jim Rogers was aboard his LCI steaming towards the beaches of Normady. As if aware of the grim events about to unfold, the seas were in a fury, the skies were dark, and the wind howled. Stationed in the con tower, Jim was responsible for relaying the captain’s orders to rest of the crew, particularly to the gunners who were manning the 20mm-caliber machine guns that could shoot over a mile. Their orders were to land on Utah Beach, just west of Omaha, and unload the 90th Division whose mission was to take Cherbourg, a deep water port that would be used for unloading equipment and troops. Six hours earlier, 2,200 British and American bombers unleashed hell upon the beaches, followed by paratroopers from the 101st and the 82nd Airborne. Five hours later, the first wave of LCIs landed on Utah Beach, led by none other than Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.


At fifty-six-years-old and with a failing heart, Ted Roosevelt was the oldest man at the D-Day Invasion and the only general officer to personally accompany the first wave of troops onto the beaches. Walking Utah Beach with a cane in one hand and a pistol in the other, Roosevelt realized that heavy winds and strong currents had pushed them more than a mile off course. But instead of correcting their position, Roosevelt radioed his fellow commanders and famously declared, “We’ll start the war from right here.”


Aboard Jim’s LCI, sea sickness had stricken the infantrymen and they wanted nothing more than to get off the boat. But as Jim’s captain neared Utah Beach, he stopped short. “Because it was low tide, he was scared of getting hung up on the beach,” Jim remembers. “Sitting there, we’d be sitting ducks.” The thirty-five-year-old captain had never driven the boat up onto the beach before and hadn’t hit it hard enough. Instead, he dropped the stern anchor early and ordered the men to unload. Carrying sixty-pound mortar bases on their backs or heavy bandoliers of machine gun bullets across the chests, the men stepped off the ramp and immediately plunged over the heads in the water. They were too deep. Because the LCI hadn’t nosed up against the shore, a powerful riptide was pulling the bow down the beach, threatening to snap the anchor that had been dropped from the ramp. “Skipper, let me straighten on that anchor,” Jim offered.


Jim was dying to get his feet on French soil and the anchor gave him his opportunity to do so. “Go ahead,” the captain said. In a flash, Jim climbed out of the con tower and plunged into the 59-degree water. He fished out the 25-pound anchor and hauled it up to be repositioned. Bullets were whizzing into the water around him. But as he was about to reset the anchor, he noticed that the soldiers had stopped disembarking from his LCI. The captain had decided they needed to get closer to shore, but he couldn’t leave Jim out there in the water by himself. So the crew lowered a dinghy with two men to scoop up Jim as the captain repositioned the ship closer to shore.


What should have been a fifteen-minute landing took the better part of an hour. “In the distance, you could hear the guns,” Jim remembers. “There was still a lot of fighting on Omaha Beach and the destroyers were coming in trying to hit the bunkers about a mile away.” After the LCI nosed closer to the beach, the two men rowed Jim along the shores where he dropped the anchor, allowing the rest of the men to unload. In total, 21,000 men would land on Utah Beach that day. They would take Cherbourg later that summer. The Nazis would fall the following May. Sitting in the dinghy, bobbing on the shores of Normady more than 3,500 miles from his home, Jim Rogers was now forever connected with this historic conquest of good over evil.

*

In the wake of D-Day, the war would take Jim Rogers far and wide. He’d eventually ship out to the Pacific Theater and walk in the rubble of Nagasaki. Though he has countless memories that defined this time of a young man being exposed to the world through the lens of war, only one story causes his voice to falter. “The trip back from Normady, we pulled up on the dock, and there was a ship coming in, a British trawler coming in, right in front of us, so I went over to look at it,” Jim remembers, now studying the kitchen table as if watching the scene unfold.


“It had a bunch of German prisoners in the back. Most of them were wounded. And there was one German guy in a stretcher. And this American soldier who had been wounded—his arm was, you know, really banged up—he went over and lit a cigarette for this German guy.” Emotion suddenly overtakes the old man. “I just couldn’t…couldn’t get over that,” he continues with tears in his eyes. “Here they were shooting at each other just two days before.” He looks up, “You say, what the hell were we fighting for?”


Amidst the great horrors of World War II, these rare glimmers of humanity seem to have stuck most poignantly with Jim Rogers. They are flames that grew throughout his life, helping him to excel in business, faithfully serve his community, and raise a family. “They’re all better than me,” Jim says of his children and grandchildren. But if you ask Jim’s son or grandson about him, they’ll talk about their patriarch in tones reserved for the holy. Indeed, Jim Rogers belongs to a rarified time that we’re all striving to get back to in some way or another. A time when you did what you said, you lived by your principals, and you gave selflessly for others. A time when men lived like lions. Will there ever be a renaissance in this Greatest Generation or is Jim Rogers one of the last of his pride? Perhaps the best way to ferry their return is to never forget that they existed in the first place.

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