He bobbed up and down in the Indian Ocean, seven days on a wooden raft with no food and little water.
Sometimes the ocean was glassy. Other times, the raft was surrounded by walls of water.
Don't be surprised, but when Sgt. John Sussex tells you the story, he might break into a gut-busting roar of laughter.
Oh, it was serious, and he knew it was serious. But, there's humor in everything, and Sussex sees no reason to dwell on the negative.
He calls his experience in World War II a paid vacation.
Soldiers knew they could die at any time. Some were paralyzed with the thought.
Sussex dealt with the horrors like he dealt with the hunger on the raft: He fantasized about something wonderful, like his sister's sandwiches, and then blocked it out.
He grew up on a ranch in Colorado and joined the military at 18. He wanted to be in the Navy, but because of his experience with horses, he was sent to the cavalry.
He trained with the cavalry briefly in the U.S. before loading a Liberty Ship for India. Their mission was to deliver 317 mules to Calcutta, join Merrill's Marauders and pack through India. They would pack "over the hump in Burma," into China and attack the Japanese from the west.
But they never made it.
They refueled in Australia after 28 days at sea. Then they headed out again.
After day 35, in the middle of the night, a Japanese submarine hit their ship with two torpedoes. One of the torpedoes hit in Sussex's cabin, but Sussex wasn't there. He was sleeping in a mule chute on deck. It was hot in the cabins, and he and his buddy, Sgt. Marvin Fraley, had gone looking for fresher air.
"So I was in that mule chute asleep when those torpedoes came, and it bounced me around in there like a rubber ball."
Even in the chaos, Sussex found his clothes neatly folded where he left them. Others weren’t so lucky.
He and Fraley greeted each other in the darkness, put on life jackets and heard the orders to abandon ship. They tied two life rafts together and hopped on. A sailor stopped them; he needed their help with a gun on the bow of the boat.
Four men went back aboard. Sussex and Fraley stayed with the rafts, holding them by a rope. The submarine fired another torpedo.
Water came over the men so heavy that they had to bend over to breathe.
Sussex doesn’t remember being scared at that moment. Instead, he likes to tell people how Fraley, who was from Oklahoma, tried to put in a dip of chewing tobacco under the cascade of water.
“I asked him what he was doing and he said he was taking a chew because it would get wet … And when we bent over to open our mouths to breath, I think he lost his chew there.”
Soon the men knew they needed to jump from the sinking ship and leapt to their rafts.
Mules and pieces of broken ship floated everywhere. Sussex watched as the fan of the ship sank and the tail rose into the air.
They heard submarine engines and saw the Japanese vessel surface about 50 yards away. It fired three shots, submerged and the men never saw it again.
Rafts and debris floated in every direction.
Sharks ate many of the mules; others died over time. That’s the one part of the story that still visibly upsets Sussex. So many mules wasted.
In all, there were 17 men floating on two 8- by 8-foot life rafts. They took stock of their supplies and realized they not only had no food, but little water and no fishing supplies.
The sailors on the sunken Liberty Ship had used the fishing gear, leaving only some line with no hooks or bait on the rafts. They did have small containers of fresh water, and the officer on board quickly established a ration of about two Dixie cups of water each day.
Bored and hungry, Sussex fashioned a makeshift hook out of a pin in his life jacket. He attached it to some fishing line and dangled the bare hook in the water.
Suddenly, something bit. He and Fraley reeled in their catch.
They nearly had it in the boat when their hook bent back and their dinner dropped back into the water.
On the fifth day in the rafts, a plane flew overhead and dropped supplies. The packages missed their boat and bobbed in the water.
It wasn’t a long distance, but sharks patrolled the gap. The men had to watch as the supplies floated away.
Another two days and nights passed before rescue arrived. They were flown to Australia, and the men were assigned to varying divisions to serve the rest of their time in the military.
Sussex became a special investigator in the Philippines and ran a motor crew. He was court martialed once for uncovering the stars on Gen. MacArthur's Jeep so he could pass through a crowd. He had to deliver the Jeep quickly, and people wouldn't move. Once they saw the stars they parted, each believing the general was in the back.
Sussex still laughs about that court martial.
In 1945, Sussex came home, the Pacific war won. He stayed in the reserves for five years before deciding he "didn't want to spend the rest of my life killing people or letting someone else kill me."
He returned to horses and at 84 years old, Sussex and his wife ride through their land near La Grange, laughing as much as possible.
"Even when stuff hits the fan, something funny happens."
Sgt. John Sussex
Unit: 3rd Platoon, Troop Y in the Cavalry
War fronts: Pacific Theater
Family: Married, with two children
His words: "There was a guy who showed up here a year or so ago hunting turkeys, and we got to talking, and he was a tail gunner flying out of Calcutta. They heard there were some of Merrill's guys floating around out in the ocean, and he was looking for us too. That was a long time after. It's a pretty small world."