Decorated for saving enemy lives

"I know that I have a new appreciation for the veterans of previous wars, those men and women who came back from those conflicts and returned to daily life. They are invisible to us now in many ways ..."

- Army Reservist Sgt. Matthew Mendonsa in his "Iraq Journal" entry, following his return to Sonoma County after combat duty in Fallujah.

Robert Sheeks, 82, of Santa Rosa is one such invisible man. It's not that he's transparent. It's that he is a veteran, and, as Mendonsa noted, they are not always easy to spot. As President Bush said at the dedication of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., in May, Sheeks was among the many "who fought and worked and grieved and went on."

And now blend in every day with the rest of us.

On Veterans Day Thursday, I had the privilege of sitting in the living room of Bob Sheeks' Bennett Valley house hearing him tell his Pacific War story with the aid of the sepia-tinted images in his photo albums.

"I always got great photo coverage during the war because the photographers always wanted to get pictures of the enemy," Sheeks said with a laugh. "And they knew the best way to get a picture was to follow me."

At that moment he was pointing to a picture of himself in combat gear crouching before a Japanese mother with two infants. They were among the many Japanese civilians and soldiers who hid in caves and ravines after American forces landed on the Japanese-occupied island of Saipan in 1944. Sheeks was awarded a Bronze Star for, among other things, convincing many to come out of hiding.

"I'm probably the only Marine who got decorated for saving enemy lives," he says.

I can't begin to do justice to his tale in this space. Fortunately others have done it for me. Bob Sheeks' experiences are included in a newly released book titled "Pacific War Stories: In the words of those who survived" published by Abbeville Press.

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