The Raccoon Man
In late 2015, I completed a series of interviews with a gentleman from Western Ohio about his experiences in World War II.
I first met him in the spring of 2015 in Athens after attending a genealogy presentation about the former mental institution which existed in Athens between 1874 and 1993. His story, which has nothing to do with the mental institution, intrigued me so much that I spent about 10 hours with him and his granddaughter over the next several months.
Joe Boswell lives with his wife of 75 years and chops wood with the same axe used by his grandfather in 1932, except that Joe replaced the handle around 1955. Joe still lives on the same land purchased by his grandfather in 1902.
The original shack sits at the rear of the land and was occupied by Joe’s mother until she died in 1995.
In 1975, Joe erected a modular home, which looks more like a log cabin. A Marlin 30-30 rifle given to Joe as a young boy now hangs on the stone fireplace of the house.
Even a 92, he can still hit a tin can at 300 yards away.
Pearl Harbor was bombed in December, 1941. Joe was a senior in high school, although he was more likely found in the fields with his grandfather planting tobacco.
In January 1942, Joe, having just turned 18 years old, went to the recruiting station in Cincinnati and, in spite of his mother’s protests, joined the U.S. Army. Joe said he even asked the Army recruiter if he could bring his Marlin rifle with him to the battlefront and bragged about his deadly accuracy with that gun.
Joe remembered the recruiter mumbling something about dumb farm boys and pointed him toward the door marked “medical examinations.”
Four days later, Joe was on a bus headed for basic training at Fort Harrison. He had $4.35 in his pocket and five bacon sandwiches in a bag. Halfway through the 14-hour bus ride, the bag had been emptied.
The next 16 weeks went by quickly. Joe was looking forward to completion of basic training and joining his buddies to fight the Germans.
He really wanted to go after the Japanese in retribution for Pearl Harbor, but there was not much need for sharpshooters in the Pacific. Germany would have to do. His performance on the firing range proved that Joe was indeed an expert marksman.
Joe was assigned to a newly created Military Police School at Fort Harrison. He always wondered if his pre-military sharpshooting skills had something to do with his assignment, despite the fact that he has never fired a handgun up to that point.
Military Policy School lasted only four weeks, where he mastered his 45-caliber gun as well as the M-1 rifle.
As orders were being handed out to each soldier, Joe was advised to go to the base commander’s office for his orders. Although he found that odd, he nonetheless sprinted to the commander’s office.
After waiting for 15 minutes, he and two other soldiers were ushered into an office. The commander, at least that’s whose name was on the door, handed orders to all three and said, “Soldiers, you are being sent to a place to provide security for a government facility. You are prohibited from telling anyone where you are going, including other soldiers and even your family. If you tell anyone, you will be arrested and charged with treason. Do you understand?”
As it turned out, Joe’s orders that said he would be officially stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, but would actually be some five hours south.
He says he found it very difficult to lie to his mother about being at Fort Campbell. As far as the Army was concerned, Joe would be a ghost. Contacting anyone was prohibited, and there were actually other soldiers who would make sure that never happened.
At the time, this military town was sometimes referred to as the Clinton Engineer Works, Manhattan Project, and K26. It was not officially known as Oak Ridge until 1949.
Joe’s job was very simple — he and another soldier were assigned to protect a civilian scientist working at this government facility. Where the scientist went, Joe went.
Sometimes his scientist, who, Joe recalled, walked with a profound limp, left for several weeks at a time. Occasionally, the scientist would make comments about how much better the weather was in New Mexico. And Joe remembered some men in suits occasionally followed him and his scientist around. Up to that point, the only people Joe had ever seen wearing a suit was a judge and a preacher, but he suspected they were neither.
Joe had no idea what the buildings were for, and it was not something that was openly discussed. This new government town of some 10,000 people had movies, stores, banks, restaurants and even bars.
No one uttered a word about their job and even when someone let something slip, Joe had no idea what they were talking about, and he certainly had no idea what his scientist did there. It seemed that everyone knew only what was necessary to do their job — whatever that was.
Joe did his job until September 14, 1945. The war had ended on September 2 after atomic bombs had found their mark in Japan several weeks earlier. Joe never fired his weapon except for practice.
Years later he wondered why a scientist in Tennessee was so important to the Army, especially a scientist who spoke with a heavy foreign accent. Although Joe was prepared to enter the battlefield, he trusted the Army’s decisions to put him in Oak Ridge.
After the war, he quickly returned to his home, married, and had five children, losing one son in Viet Nam in 1967.
In 1996, Joe’s granddaughter wanted to write a story about her grandpa but she knew very little about his years in the Army. It wasn’t until she requested his military records under the Freedom of Information Act, with her grandfather’s blessing, that Joe discovered the actual identity of the scientist he protected.
His granddaughter had to explain to her grandfather the importance of the scientist to the war effort. Joe simply said, “I did not ask questions, and I was instructed not to speak about it after the war. I knew the name of the scientist, but very little beyond that.”
In fact, Joe’s scientist was none other than Edward Teller, the Hungarian physicist known as the father of the hydrogen bomb. Throughout the war, hostile countries had placed a bounty on Teller’s head. It was reported that Adolf Hitler once instructed his SS generals to kill Teller before he gave the Americans the key to atomic fission.
Joe never talked about his duties in the military, mostly because no one really asked him. It took his granddaughter three months to convince Joe that any classified restrictions had been lifted. Even a classmate of Joe, who was a retired county judge, assured Joe it was OK to talk about his service.
Joe retired from the Vinton Furnace State Experimental Forest. His coworkers called him The Raccoon Man because he had a raccoon that stayed in his office.
Between 1950 and 1999, he never missed church and taught Sunday School for 37 years. Except for his deceased son, all of his children went to college at Ohio University. Four of his grandchildren served in the military in the Middle East and five of his eleven great grandchildren are law enforcement officers.
Over a piece of apple pie made by his granddaughter, I thanked him and his family for sharing his story.
Joe held up a finger as if to say, “Hang on, there’s more.”
He went to a kitchen cabinet and retrieved a bottle of Kentucky bourbon. I must have had a surprised look on my face because, as he poured the fire water into a couple of shot glasses, he said, “I love Jesus, but I like a little bourbon once in a while, too.” Two hours later, his granddaughter drove me to my hotel.
Joe died this past spring. He was buried on his family farm, along with his parents and his son.
His story was just one of thousands that we never knew about because no one asked.
Dennis Mattingly is a resident of Sabina.
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