Rochelle WWII Vet Remembered For His Service And A 'Haunting' Family Tale

Nov 10, 2017

One Rochelle-area teenager used the occasion of Veterans Day to honor his great-grandfather by sharing an important part of their family's history.

Rochelle Township High School Senior John Combs spent only a few Veterans Days with his great-grandfather, who died 11 years ago. But it could have been much worse for his family. Combs turned a class assignment into an opportunity to write an essay about his great-grandfather James Combs and how he was mistaken for a ghost during World War II.

My great grandfather James H. Combs enlisted in the United States Navy during World War II at the age of 19.  He was assigned as an electrician’s mate (and gunner) aboard the USS Suwannee.

The Suwanee was in the battle of Leyte Gulf off the coast of the Philippines on October 23, 1944. It remains the largest naval battle in history. There were a total of 26 US ships in the battle. By the end, only 20 were afloat, my great grandfather’s among them.  

The Suwannee was one of the first ships hit (twice) by Japanese kamikaze attack planes, leaving holes in the flight deck large enough for a semi-truck to fit through. I understand there were 880 men killed in that attack. Every one of them received a military burial at sea by night, so as not to draw further attacks.

My great grandfather was hit by shrapnel and was pronounced dead on October 26, 1944, because he could not report to roll call. The list was telegraphed stateside and officers were dispatched to the home of my great-great-grandparents to report him killed in action. In the meantime, survivors repaired the ship to successfully return it to harbor. At the harbor, each of the injured sailors was given a 3 month leave. The uninjured were shipped back out.

The ship took 30 days to get back to harbor and after 3 months of repair it returned to sea. I don’t know if great-grandpa knew he had been reported killed in action until he walked up to his parents’ home.   My great-great grandma saw him walking across the yard and slapped him to be sure he was real and not a ghost.  

He earned the Purple Heart and an honorable discharge from the Navy. Great-grandpa eventually relocated to Rochelle when he was recruited by the Del Monte Corp. as an electrician. He also served the community as assistant fire chief.

Interestingly, James Combs passed away on October 26, 2006, 62 years to the day after he was declared dead in 1944.

Thanks to Vicki Snyder-Chura for her help with this report.