John Byron Davis, 99, has strayed little from the Miami Valley of Ohio, but when Uncle Sam came calling in 1943 in the middle of World War II, Davis says, ”They drafted every man who could walk.” Davis was employed at the National Cash Register Company in Dayton and could walk. It was, therefore, farewell to the farm in Darke County where his father, Forrest, was a “general farmer” tending apple and pear trees, vegetables, chickens, and all manner of four-footed animals- sheep, horses, hogs, and cows and off to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station outside of Chicago, then to the shipyard at Bremerton, Washington, and finally on a troop ship to Kodiak, Alaska.
In Alaska, he worked in the engine room as a motor machinist on a minesweeper, the USS Agile AMc-111. The Agile was a wooden-hulled vessel, 96 feet in length with a beam of 24 feet, originally intended as a fishing boat, that was purchased by the U.S. Navy in 1941 for removing mines in water. After purchase, it was retrofitted with two 50-caliber machine guns and two 30-caliber machine guns.
Davis indicates that the mission of his unit was to use cable and netting to sweep the shallow waters of the Johnston Atoll of land mines. Davis says they never captured any mines while he was there, but they saw plenty of black whales every few days spouting water from their blowholes, nostrils located at the top or the back of a whale’s head. Additionally, the men in his unit went ashore in Alaska hunting caribou, and of this little adventure, Davis says, “I never saw one and neither did they.” Davis looked for Kodiak bears, and alas, never saw one, but there were plenty of salmon two to three feet long to be seen caught in the water tide. He did once catch a four-foot flounder which the men butchered and cooked of which Davis says, “ It wasn’t too bad, but I wasn’t crazy about it.”
In Alaska where Davis reports they had four hours if daylight in the winter and four hours of night in the summer, he wasn’t interested in the canteens or beer joints because he didn’t smoke or drink, but he did play cards: euchre, canasta, pinochle but no gambling. He reports that his time in the Navy was “real good.”
He now plays cards four or five days a week in Miami and Darke counties and says, “Nothing else to do at my age, lost my strength and don’t want to just sit around. Had cataract surgery 20 years ago, and my eyes are restored to eagle strength, so I read agriculture magazines. I go to Grand Lake at St. Marys Park fishing for anything I can get on a hook, but my fish stories are bigger than any fish I catch.”
After his military service, he returned to NCR from which he retired, bought a farm, took a year of instruction on crop and animal management at a local school, and he and his wife, Esther, had a son, Jack, who served in the Ohio Army National Guard.
Both Jack and Esther, have passed, so when he’s not playing cards, you might find Davis eating and talking at Miller’s Tavern in Arcanum or at Laura’s Country Diner in Laura. If you do, introduce yourself, and he will regale you with tales of how it used to be in Darke County or how at 5 feet 6 inches, he played guard at Monroe High School from which he graduated in 1942. And ask him why he was named Byron.