Saturday, September 13, 2003


Marine fights last battle with friends by side

By Len Wells, Southern Illinois Correspondent
August 17, 2003

Retired Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Jesse C. Rockett Jr. drew his final breath last Monday at a hospital in Evansville.

To some, he was just one of thousands of World War II veterans who died across this country last week. To his family and friends, this Springerton, Ill., native and resident of Carmi, Ill., was the epitome of the Marine Corps.

Rockett and a friend from Cisne, Ill., joined the Marines in 1945, taking a train to the induction center in St. Louis. After completing basic training, Rockett was shipped off to Okinawa, where he helped mop up Japanese resistance.

During his 20 years in the Marines, Rockett served on the Chinese mainland and was one of the few remaining members of the China Marine Association.

Rockett served with one of the most infamous Marines, Lee Harvey Oswald.

Rockett once told the story that he was the one who had to drive Oswald to an aid station after Oswald shot himself in the foot trying to get out of the military.

During his lengthy military career, Rockett fought in the Korean War, earning the Bronze Star after engaging the enemy in bloody hand-to-hand combat.

But Rockett's greatest battle was with cancer. In 1984, he contracted throat cancer. He recovered, taught himself to speak again and continued with life, operating a service station in Carmi for many years.

In later years, the cancer spread. He would beat it again, and it would return. A few weeks ago, Rockett was admitted to a hospital in Evansville where he would fight his final battle.

In the last hours of his life, Jesse Rockett asked to see his nephew, Braden Willis II of Enfield, and his grand-nephew, Braden Willis III of Fairfield - both Marine Corps veterans.

Rockett, unable to speak, scrawled his last request on a piece of paper and handed it to his nephews.

"Get as many Marines as you can to carry me out," Rockett wrote. "I want someone singing the Marine Corps Hymn when they pack me out of the church."

Braden Willis III knew how much Marine Corps life meant to his uncle. He stepped out of the hospital room and phoned the USMC recruiting station in Evansville.

"I explained that my uncle was dying, and how much it would mean for him to see Marines in dress blues one more time before he died," Willis said. About 7 o'clock, two Marine Corps sergeants walked into Rockett's room.

"My God, Dad, there are two Marines here," said Rockett's oldest daughter. The Marines - one from Pennsylvania, the other from Maine, leaned over, shook Rockett's hand and thanked him for his service to his country.

A smile crossed Rockett's face as he acknowledged the Marines' presence. Neither had ever met Jesse Rockett Jr., but they understood the unspoken bond that exists between Marines.

By now, as many as 30 family members and friends had crowded into Rockett's room. His breathing became more labored - the end was drawing near.

"It was Aunt Linda Duckworth that started singing an old gospel song," said Braden Willis III. "The rest of us joined in. We sang 'Amazing Grace,' 'Victory in Jesus' and 'The Old Rugged Cross.'"

Two nurses heard the sweet harmony of gospel music flowing from the room and drew closer. Standing at the doorway, tears filled the nurses' eyes.

It was somewhere in the middle of "The Old Rugged Cross" that Jesse Rockett Jr. drew his last breath.

An old Marine who had fought two wars, Rockett's last battle was fought with friends and relatives by his side.

A true Marine to the end.