This is a Memorial Day story from a war that still seems recent to one of my age but actually was four wars ago as our nation counts its involvement in international savagery.

The story contains those human qualities of patriotism, family devotion, courage and perseverance that often lead to triumph. But war is ruthless, relentless, impersonal and unforgiving; what it gives it also can instantly take away.

Among the men involved in this story was one of ours, Louis Darrell Ball, who told it. His friends sometimes called him Monk. With his widowed mother, four brothers and a sister he had moved from Rochester to Akron in1941, the year America entered World War II.

Soon afterward brother Norval (Killer) Ball, nicknamed because of his success as bantamweight boxer, enlisted in the Army Air Corps and became a tail gunner on a B-24 Liberator bomber. On January 6, 1943, he was lost in air action over the island of Guadalcanal in the Southwest Pacific; his body never was recovered.

Norval's death at age 28 awakened in Louis a need to exact vengeance for his older brother and so he, too, enlisted in the Air Corps and, like Norval, wound up in the Southwest Pacific in the tail blister of a B-24. The Ball boys all were diminutive, an attribute necessary for that gun position.

Soon Louis found himself based in New Guinea, in the Southwest Pacific. He became part of the island-hopping campaign moving U.S. forces toward the Philiippines and the Japanese home islands. On October 18, nine months after his brother's death, Louis and nine fellow crewmen were returning from a bombing mission at Rabaulwhen the Liberator's motors failed. All bailed out over one of the jungle-covered Solomon Islands east of New Guinea.

Louis recounted what happened next in a letter to his mother, Rethal, a transcript of which is in the Fulton County Historical Society archives.

The crew was separated upon landing so Louis was alone, choking back terror. Let him describe it:

"Never will I forget my first night in the jungle alone. Never! As soon as I got free from my parachute I prayed for God to guide me and take care of me. I followed a river as long as I could that day, jumping from rock to rock, wading in water sometimes up to my neck, keeping always on the alert for water snakes and crocodiles which kept me in constant fear. Then when it was impossible to go any farther by stream I would crawl, and force my way through the thick underbrush on the river banks.

"Darkness came and with it came the fear of being in the jungle alone. Over and over I kept telling myself nothing would happen, but it didn't help much. I found a huge flat boulder in the middle of the river and on it was resting another huge rock at such an angle that I could lie down under the crevice and keep dry, as it rained every night. Before I had completely dozed off, I prayed again that I might be able to run into someone else so it wouldn't be quite so lonesome."

Awakening at dawn, he had an imaginary breakfast of ham and eggs and began another day trying not to think about pythons, water snakes or crocodiles. Suddenly Taylor, Freeman and Fitzgerald - the pilot, co-pilot and radio operator - appeared. "They were a grand sight," wrote Louis, and the only injury among them was the co-pilot's sore ribs.

The four of them stumbled on through the jungle without food; berries were avoided out of fear of toxicity. On the evening of the fifth day, Louis saw a huge fish swimming in a pool close to the top of the water. He whipped out his .45 calibre Colt revolver and fired at it. The concussion stunned the fish, Fitzgerald grabbed it, a fire was built and they feasted on its succulence.

Afterward they tried fishing the pool with nets made from their undershirts but it was too deep. Wild pigs occasionally came into view but nobody could get a shot into them. That left only lizards and frogs in view; they couldn't bear the thought of eating lizards and they couldn't catch the frogs. So, there was no more food for the next six days, only river water to drink. Once, trying to ford the river they were carried quickly downstream by its current and saved themselves from drowning by grabbing vines along the bank.

Finally, on the 11th day they caught sight of a grass hut and heard some chickens clucking. They had found a native village. Louis fell to his knees, thanked God and cried.

The villagers gave them food and dry clothing, then summoned a nearby Catholic missionary who took them on a 12-hour canoe trip to the coast where Australians got them back to their New Guinea base. The other six members of the crew had been picked up earlier, having survived on 11 chocolate bars and two packages of soup.

By November 3rd, Louis wrote than he and his crewmate Fitzgerald were "eating five meals a day and then going to the kitchen for a snack in between times, then they bring us a big sandwich before we go to bed." Between that and sleeping whenever he wanted, Louis felt he was in heaven.

Soon he would have an extended sick leave in Australia, too, and this Ball soon signed off as "Little Louie, now a man." It was a pardonable boast; he had earned the right to claim it. And he assured his mother that "everything will be alright again,"

Not so. The wages of war had not been exacted. Louis was sent back to the tail of another B-24. On April 9, 1944 - Easter Sunday - his bomber exploded in a fight with a Japanese Zero. It was just over five months after he had emerged safely from the jungle.

He was only 26, but his luck had run out.

As it did for 259 other Fulton county men in our nation's wars. Monday's Memorial Day would be a good time to thank all of them for the gifts of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness we still enjoy.

Published May 25, 1999