Remember This Name
(Jack Punches, Pentagon
by Tom Philpott
Trapped by Flames and Smoke in the Pentagon's C Ring, Jerry Henson
Thought He Was Going to Die. Then a Man He'd Never Seen Before
Performed an Awesome Feat.
SOME MINUTES AFTER 9:30 AM, JERRY HENSON, HEAD OF a Navy office in
the Pentagon, was talking on the phone, canceling a hotel
reservation, but his eyes were glued to the television set mounted
on the wall above the desk of his deputy, Jack Punches. On the
screen, the networks kept replaying an incredible scene: a second
airliner exploding into the World Trade Center.
Henson, 64, and Punches, 50--both retired naval aviators--led a
seven-person staff that coordinated Navy efforts in counter-drug
operations and emergency relief. Their offices, part of the Navy
Command Center, were on the first floor in the middle ring--the C
ring--of the Pentagon.
As they watched, Punches answered his telephone. "What's going on?"
Janice Punches asked her husband.
"I don't know," he replied. "We're trying to find that out."
Neither Punches nor Henson could comprehend what they were seeing: a
televised attack by airliners.
Henson continued talking on the phone. Standing beside his desk as
the shocking scenes in New York were replayed, petty officers
Christine Williams and Charles Lewis waited for guidance to revise
travel orders. Suddenly there was a deafening roar. The world went
black. It was 9:38 AM.
The Pentagon has corridors that run, like spokes of a five-sided
wheel, from the edge of the central courtyard to the building's
perimeter. Linking the corridors are five concentric rings of
hallways lettered A to E, the E ring being the outermost. The rings
are stacked five stories high, creating 17H miles of hallways
connecting offices for 24,000 employees.
Flying toward the Pentagon at almost 350 miles an hour, American
Airlines Flight 77, with 64 passengers, crew, and hijackers on
board, had flown low enough to clip light poles on Route 27. It
struck an emergency electric generator, shearing off a portion of
one wing, before smashing into the building between corridors 4 and
5. The damaged wing may explain why the plane ripped into the
building's western face at an angle. It sliced through the outermost
rings--E and D--and penetrated part of C ring. As the plane
disintegrated, burning jet fuel exploded through offices, including
the crowded Navy Command Center, where Jerry Henson and his
Engulfed in darkness, the roar still filling his head, Henson was
pinned in his chair by hundreds of pounds of debris. A dead weight
on his head pressed his left cheek against his shoulder. His neck
must be broken, he thought. He couldn't move. He guessed what had
happened. "All this stuff is on top of me," he thought, "because an
airplane has come through the Pentagon."
Despite a head wound, Henson remained conscious. Acrid smoke was
filling the air. He couldn't see anything--the room was as black as
midnight. Henson could hear his petty officers, Williams and Lewis,
on the floor beside him. With smoke burning their eyes and throats,
all three began yelling for help.
Lewis reached toward Henson and felt what seemed an immovable weight
across the desk. Lewis knew he couldn't free Henson, who was boxed
in and weighed down by debris. The path to the office's only door,
behind him, seemed to be blocked by a maze of objects.
Amidst their yells for help, Henson called out to his friend Jack
Punches. "Jack," he said. "Jack, are you all right? Can you hear
FROM THE HILLTOP VISTA OF THE NAVY ANNEX ACROSS Route 27, Scott
Buckles, 31, watched smoke pour from the Pentagon. He knew a lot of
people were in distress, but his mind was on one, Captain Jack
Buckles knew Punches was inside the inferno. In the 5H years Buckles
had served as Punches' assistant, his mentor had never missed work.
Now working for a defense contractor, Buckles was in the Navy Annex
when the airliner screamed overhead, rattling windows. Hearing the
explosion, Buckles and others evacuated the complex and stared at
the scene in disbelief. Buckles felt a sense of dread over the fate
of the man he loved like a father.
In 1995 Punches had become head of the Navy's counter-drug branch.
Buckles, then a petty officer second class, had become his
right-hand man. The gap between the two men's rank was large, but
Captain Punches seldom made Buckles feel that way.
Colleagues say that Punches cared deeply about his staff. He
challenged, inspired, protected, and entertained them. He was their
shield against mind-numbing "taskers" from admirals or their
overzealous executive assistants. "When he got a tasking he thought
was dumb," recalls Jerry Henson, "he would go to the front office
and say, 'We're not doing this.' If they insisted, then he'd do it
himself. . . . But he wouldn't load up his junior officers doing
Punches beat back the drudgery of staff work with
contests--crossword puzzles, golf outings, football pools, verbal
sparring. "He was one of those guys you loved immediately," says
Henson. "One meeting and you felt like he was your friend."
Now, amid the heat and smoke and darkness and pain, Henson wondered
where Punches was.
LIEUTENANT COMMANDER DAVID TARANTINO, A 35-year-old Navy physician
working on humanitarian-relief issues for the office of the
Secretary of Defense, was watching CNN with office mates when he
felt a jolt, "like an earthquake," and heard an explosion. "Now
we're under attack," he thought.
Tarantino's fourth-floor office was in the Pentagon wedge struck by
the airliner, but it was off the innermost A ring, far enough away
from the impact to escape immediate damage. Plans to move the staff
into renovated E-ring offices by late August had been delayed. "We
had already picked out our desks," Tarantino says. The new offices
were now in flames.
As colleagues made their way out of the building, Tarantino, a
graduate of Georgetown University medical school, began searching
for injured people. Taking stairs down to the third floor, he walked
toward the E ring down the fourth corridor, which soon was "full,
ceiling to floor, with very thick, noxious, heavy smoke," he
recalls. "You couldn't see anything."
Tarantino and others ducked into a restroom to get wet paper towels.
Holding them over their faces, they crawled on their bellies down
the corridor and began directing survivors, by voice, toward the
When no more voices were heard on the third floor, Tarantino moved
to the second floor and again became an invisible traffic cop.
Eventually he found himself on the first floor, in an open breezeway
between corridors 4 and 5. A dozen or so people were gathered in
front of two holes in the C-ring wall. Tarantino saw an aircraft
tire, which might have made one of the holes; he also saw body
parts, probably from aboard the plane. From inside the smaller hole
came voices. Out of it poured smoke and flames.
Tarantino and others grabbed fire extinguishers and started fighting
their way through the breech in the wall. Exposed electrical wires
shocked them as they tried to enter. Cooked metal above them turned
to solder and dripped on exposed arms and hands. Tarantino tore off
his khaki shirt, fearing that the synthetic fibers would melt.
ALSO SEARCHING FOR VICTIMS IN THE CHAOS WAS Navy Captain David M.
Thomas Jr., executive assistant for the Navy's Quadrennial Defense
Review. In his previous assignment, Thomas, 43, had commanded the
USS Ross, an Aegis-class destroyer based in Norfolk. After 12 years
at sea and countless damage-control drills, a sailor's instinct is
to confront a disaster, not move away from it. So when Thomas felt
the shudder that morning, he had rushed down a stairwell to the
In the breezeway between B and C rings, he had seen smoke and flames
through second-deck windows. Inside, he realized, were Navy
colleagues, including his closest friend, Captain Robert Dolan, a
buddy since their years at the Naval Academy and godfather to one of
Thomas had seen the two holes in the C-ring wall and had gone
through the larger one, but found no one inside. There was no
response to his calls. Then he heard voices behind a door. It was
locked. Someone handed him a metal stanchion to knock the door in
with, but it wouldn't give.
Back in the breezeway, Thomas realized that the space the voices had
come from could be reached through the smaller hole, where Tarantino
and several others were working.
Thomas took off his "plastic" khaki blouse and grabbed a cotton
shirt discarded by a cafeteria worker, wrapping it around his bald
pate as a makeshift flash helmet. He joined the others. They took
turns wielding the fire extinguishers and pulling out debris.
Inside, tiles and light fixtures fell from the ceiling, creating
arcs of electricity.
They made their way into the area, fighting back flames and dodging
debris. One or two would go in and spray for a few minutes, come
back out, and another would go in. They pushed farther into the
office space. The smoke was even thicker than Tarantino had faced in
the halls--the thick black smoke of burning jet fuel.
JERRY HENSON KNEW SOMETHING SHARP AND HEAVY HAD fallen on his head.
Blood ran beside his right ear, soaking his shoulder. After several
minutes, he freed his left hand from the rubble across his lap and
began peeling away whatever debris he could reach. He was able to
shift slightly in his chair and gingerly straighten his neck.
He knew he was sucking in bad air and tried to hold his breath, but
he couldn't do that for long. He was coughing and choking. Melting
metal and debris were falling from above.
When Henson had last seen Punches, he was in his chair underneath
the television set. To Punches' right were heavy bookcases. To his
left was a six-foot-high cabinet packed with folders. In the
explosion, Henson thought, any one of them could have fallen on his
partner. Still, he might be alive.
"Jack?" he called between coughs. "Jack? You all right?"
JACK PUNCHES LOVED TO TELL FUNNY STORIES, particularly to junior
officers. The story of Scott Buckles and the sewing kit had become a
minor classic in the command center.
One day in 1997, Punches had briefed then-Navy Secretary John Dalton
on the successful intercept of a big drug cache bound for the United
States. Impressed with Punches' briefing, Dalton wanted Anthony
Lake, President Clinton's national security adviser, to hear it.
Punches said he had a hotshot lieutenant standing by. No, Dalton
said, he wanted Jack to do the briefing--and to be ready in an hour.
That presented a problem. The uniform of the day at the White House
was summer whites; Punches was dressed in khaki, and his white pants
were being altered. He began searching for pants. The only pair he
found belonged to an officer at least six inches taller. He sent
Buckles to the Navy uniform shop on the fifth floor to buy a sewing
Punches and Buckles got to work with pins, needle, and thread. They
finished in time for Punches to jump into a car with a three-star
officer from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The White House briefing
Back at the Pentagon, Punches ensured that he would have a good
story to tell: He ordered Buckles to straighten up the sewing kit,
return it, and get Punches' $2 back.
Jack later delighted in mimicking Buckles' carefully winding up the
white thread, replacing the needles, and returning the kit,
red-faced, to the uniform shop.
"I said, 'I'm sorry. We didn't need this,' " Buckles
recalls. "The lady just looked at me like 'Yeah, right, buddy.' But
she wasn't up for a fight."
JERRY HENSON HAD FLOWN 72 COMBAT MISSIONS IN VIETNAM as a naval
flight officer aboard RA-5C Vigilante reconnaissance aircraft. His
aircraft typically flew over targets to take pre-strike photographs
and returned to record the results after strike aircraft made their
On those missions Henson's crew had flown through walls of flak from
antiaircraft guns. There had been nights when the plane had had to
land on a pitching carrier, its fuel gauge on empty. But in his 40
years of naval service, Henson had never felt so close to death as
he did this morning.
"I came to the realization I couldn't last any longer. I couldn't
breathe. My lungs were filling up. If somebody didn't get me in
about five minutes, I was going to pass out and die."
AS THE SMALLER HOLE WAS CLEARED OF RUBBLE, Thomas and then Tarantino
moved in deeper. They felt secondary explosions and wondered whether
the whole building would cave in or if they were under more attacks.
Breathing became so difficult that Tarantino thought he would have
to leave. Then someone handed him a flashlight.
Thomas already had his own flashlight; he maneuvered around a small
turn and into a smoke-filled office. Some of the debris inside was
on fire, and flames rose up the far wall. Thomas wished at that
moment that he had respiratory equipment, protective clothing, and a
"Anyone in here?" he yelled.
In the beam of his light, Thomas saw a pile of debris atop a
collapsed office divider. Hot liquid--melting plastic or
metal--dripped from the ceiling and stung his hands. Crouching, he
shined his light through a hole in the rubble.
"Oh, my God," he thought, '"there's a guy in here." He started
yelling, "Hey, there's a guy in here! I've got a guy! Help!"
The man was still in his chair, knocked sideways. His face was cut
up. He appeared to be unconscious. "I didn't know if he was still
with us or not," says Thomas.
PETTY OFFICER CHARLES LEWIS, STANDING BESIDE Henson's desk that
morning, had been knocked off his feet by what felt like "a big gust
of wind, a whooshing sound from behind. It felt like the room was
coming toward me," he says.
He and Christine Williams and Henson had been trapped for 20
minutes, maybe 30.
"We were banging on things, trying to let people know we were in
there," Lewis recalls. Voices from beyond a wall told Lewis to look
for a hole leading into the breezeway, maybe just a few feet away.
Find it, the voices said. But Lewis's view of the hole was blocked
by an interior wall.
Inhaling smoke, his lungs burning, Lewis thought about his family,
his three kids. "This is not how I'm supposed to die," he said to
Then the beams of flashlights appeared.
"I got a surge of nothing but adrenaline," he says. "I didn't know
what was in my way, but I crawled through it. I hit, I squirmed, I
pulled, and I made it through that hole."
Lewis's sudden appearance confused Tarantino, who was making his way
into the office space behind Thomas. Was this man from the search
effort? Did he need rescuing? Who else was in here?
Christine Williams was. She had a tougher time pulling away the
rubble than Lewis and had to be helped free. Outside, she cried that
Henson was in there--he was stuck.
Tarantino knew that the danger they faced was growing. "It was
really a raging inferno," he recalls. "Smoke inhalation feels a
little like you're drowning because you don't get enough air. . . .
Our eyes were stinging. Our lungs and throats were burning."
Beneath the debris, Henson regained consciousness. He couldn't hear
Lewis and Williams anymore. Strangling and coughing, he once again
called out for help.
"I'm down to the last few breaths," he recalls thinking. "I'm going
to yell 'help' a few more times, and then I'm going to have to
"Then I see a light."
"I STARTED SHINING THE LIGHT WHERE THE VOICE CAME from," says
Tarantino. "He was leaning back, saying, 'Help me, I'm trapped. I
can't move.' His face was bloodied and bruised and blackened."
Tarantino couldn't see what Henson was trapped by, but he could see
that on the other side of it, wooden bookcases were on fire.
"You've got to get out of there!" Tarantino yelled. "You've got to
move now! You don't have much time!"
"I can't," Henson yelled back. "My legs are pinned."
To Tarantino, the trapped man seemed composed, but it sounded like
the fight was going out of him.
Tarantino tried to rip away some debris. He couldn't budge it. He
was still ten feet away from Henson.
"I was close to being so overcome I would have had to leave,"
Tarantino recalls. But he knew if he left, the man would be gone.
Someone handed Tarantino a wet T-shirt. He tossed it over to Henson
and told him to breathe through it. Tarantino tied a second wet
T-shirt around his own mouth.
Thomas, meanwhile, struggled to lift the divider that had fallen
with the rubble across Henson's desk. He felt something moving
around his legs, looked down, and saw "the greatest sight I've ever
seen"--Tarantino crawling on his belly through the debris.
Tarantino reached Henson's side. "Look, I'm a doctor," he said.
"You're going to be all right. We'll get you out of here."
Tarantino used the flashlight to check the amount of debris.
Overhead, he saw what looked like pieces of an aircraft.
Thomas, from his side, put his shoulder under the mass that trapped
Henson. It was too heavy.
Tarantino tried lifting it, but it wouldn't budge. Not knowing what
else to do, Tarantino, who had rowed crew at Stanford, turned onto
his back, pressed his feet under the mass of debris, and pushed with
all his might. The pile rose four or five inches.
Thomas, amazed, wedged his shoulder beneath the debris.
Still lying on his back, Tarantino used his right arm to grab
Henson. "Move your ass!" he yelled. "It's now or never! You've got
to get out of here now!"
Henson started to wriggle free. He grabbed Tarantino's arm, then his
neck, and pulled himself over the doctor.
Henson moved through the tunnel formed by Tarantino's legs and the
debris above. Thomas tried to relieve some of the weight with his
shoulder as Henson moved toward him. Then Henson's foot caught on
something--a cable of some sort.
"Go! Go! Go!" Thomas screamed, pulling at the cable. "Come on, man,
you can do it!"
Henson pulled his foot out of his shoe and continued crawling to
"Is there anyone else in here?" gasped Tarantino.
"Yes," Henson said. "I think there is."
ONE OF JACK PUNCHES' SADDEST DAYS IN THE NAVY, says his daughter,
Jennifer, involved a failed rescue attempt. It was about 1988. A
ship was lost at sea; survivors radioed that they were in a life
raft. Punches, piloting a P-3 patrol aircraft--a submarine
hunter--joined the search. He and his crew patrolled for hours, but
the seas were rough and the swells so high that the raft was never
"All of those men perished," says Jennifer. "That really bothered
him. 'We were right there,' he said. 'Right over
top of them, and we couldn't find them.' "
Punches was raised in Tower Hill, Illinois. His high-school class
had 12 graduates, 11 of them girls. His mother ordered him to take
them all to the senior prom. To afford college, Jack entered the
Navy ROTC program at the University of Missouri in 1969. Students
opposing the Vietnam War pelted him with garbage when he wore his
uniform to class.
He had spent much of his 27-year naval career flying P-3s, logging
more than 7,000 flight hours. His greatest disappointment was not
commanding a P-3 squadron. Instead, in January 1991, as the Persian
Gulf War began, he took charge of VR-24, a fleet-logistics squadron
based in Sicily. It turned out to be more exciting than he expected
because his aircraft supplied eight separate battle groups over the
next seven months.
At some point, friends say, Jack must have turned down an
unaccompanied tour or extra deployment that might have kept him on
track to reach flag rank. He had the leadership skills. But it would
have cost him too much.
"His first interest," says Henson, "was his family"--wife Janice,
daughter Jennifer, 24, and son Jeremy, 20. Backyard games of ball,
golfing with Jeremy, watching Jennifer's swim meets--those were
moments not to be missed. Over the five years Punches worked as a
senior counter-drug official, says Buckles, the captain never took a
business trip. He sent others on the staff. "He didn't want to be
away from his family for one day."
IN THE BREEZEWAY OUTSIDE C RING, THOMAS HELPED PUT Henson on a
stretcher for transfer to the courtyard. There they laid him on the
grass. "They needed the litter for other people," Henson recalls.
"I'm pretty much looking up, and I'm liking the sun."
Inside Henson's office, Tarantino continued holding up the debris
while he yelled, "Is anyone else in here?"
A general officer entered the room and yelled for Tarantino to get
out--the ceiling looked ready to collapse.
"Sir," Tarantino replied, "he said there's someone else in here.
Order everyone outside to be quiet." Then he yelled: "Is there
anyone else in here?"
They heard nothing. Slowly, Tarantino let the weight down and
crawled to the hole.
Out in the breezeway he gasped for air, coughing up mucous and soot.
Holes were burned in his tee shirt. He found his uniform blouse and
put it on.
A short while later he found Henson in the courtyard. Worried that
Henson might slip into shock, Tarantino helped start him on oxygen
and an IV, then went back to the breezeway.
There was still a question whether anyone remained in the office
space, but there was no way to go back in. Smoke now seeped through
the mortar from the inferno inside. They waited for the fire crews
to arrive. "We thought with all their gear they could go in," says
Tarantino. "But they were never able to get anywhere either."
Thomas approached Tarantino in the breezeway. Smiling, he introduced
himself. "This is a guy I want to remember for the rest of my life,"
Thomas thought. He grabbed Tarantino's name tag and, to Tarantino's
surprise, ripped it off his shirt.
Thomas then found Henson in the courtyard. "Remember this name,"
Thomas told him. "Tarantino."
AFTER THE RESCUE, TARANTINO AND Thomas felt some exhilaration. "But
the feeling was fleeting," Tarantino recalls, "because God knows how
many other people were still probably in there."
The Pentagon attack killed 189 persons, including all aboard the
aircraft. One hundred to 114 people were injured. Twenty-eight of
the dead had worked in the Navy Command Center. Thomas had been
unable to save his friend Robert Dolan.
At least two factors prevented many more casualties. Contractors
were only days away from completing a two-year renovation on the
"wedge" of the Pentagon that was struck. Some of the offices
destroyed were still vacant. The renovation also had included
life-saving modifications. New blast-resistant windows, almost two
inches thick, protected E-ring offices. Kevlar, the material in
bulletproof vests, had been inserted in the E ring's outer walls.
Weight-bearing columns had been reinforced with steel beams, which
slowed the aircraft as it ripped into the building. The steel beams
delayed collapse of the upper floors for more than half an hour.
AT 12:30 PM, THREE HOURS AFTER THE attack, Tarantino finally called
his wife, Margie, at their Alexandria home, and his parents, Dave
and Eileen, a retired Navy couple who live in Annandale.
The next day Tarantino was treated for smoke inhalation,
second-degree burns, and cuts on his arms and hands. His leg lift
had sprained his knee.
He threw away his uniform, including his shoes. The soles had
IN THE VIRGINIA HOSPITAL CENTER IN Arlington, Henson for days spit
up what looked like crude oil. He had smoke damage to the lining of
his throat and lungs. Stitches closed wounds on his head, ear, and
chin. His right ear and left cheekbone, purple the day after his
rescue, would return to pink in a few weeks. His voice returned to
Henson asked everyone he saw and heard from about Jack Punches. Had
he gotten out? No one had seen him.
THE NIGHT OF SEPTEMBER 11, JACK Punches' family watched for his
truck. "He's the kind of man who wouldn't have left if he could
still help people," says Jennifer. "We joked how much trouble he
would be in when he finally got to a phone."
Hopes soared every time the phone rang.
"He would fight for us," Janice Punches told her children.
Finally, they retrieved Jack's truck from the Metro parking lot.
When some neighbors thought it meant Jack had returned home safely,
the family put the truck in the garage.
By Wednesday, their hopes had shifted to another possibility--that
Jack was hospitalized as a John Doe. If he was injured, he would not
have had identification on him because both Punches and Henson kept
their wallets in their suit coats, which hung outside their office.
The randomness of the tragedy was particularly hard on the Punches
family: How could Jerry and the two petty officers be pulled to
safety but not Jack? Why didn't they find him in that small office,
his desk so close to that hole? And why was he there? He was seldom
at his desk.
"It was gut-wrenching," says Jennifer. "You didn't want to go to
sleep, thinking someone was going to call. I didn't want to eat. I
didn't want to do anything that he couldn't do, stuck in that
On Thursday, Janice agreed to a visit from a casualty assistance
officer. On Friday, a family friend visited a support center set up
for victims' families at a hotel near the Pentagon. He returned with
word that all the injured were identified. When officials changed
the goal of search teams from "rescue" to "recovery," the Punches
knew Jack was gone.
FOR DAYS HENSON WASN'T SURE WHO had saved him. A Dateline NBC story
referred to the heroics of an unknown Navy officer who used his legs
to save a man trapped under debris. Reporting for this story finally
brought Henson, Thomas, and Tarantino together so they could talk
about what happened on September 11.
"I'm eternally grateful," Henson says. Grateful, but
not surprised. "There's never been any doubt in my mind about the
quality and responsiveness of the American serviceman," he
continues. "The American sailor is an absolutely incredible
individual. This is just the way we take care of each other and the
way we take care of business."
INTERVIEWED FOR THIS STORY TWO WEEKS after the tragedy, petty
officer Charles Lewis was asked if he had seen Captain Punches as he
had crawled through the rubble to safety. His reply would bring
relief to Henson and the Punches family.
"Captain Punches wasn't in there," Lewis said. Two minutes before
the explosion, while Henson was on the phone with a hotel clerk in
Norfolk, Punches had left the room. He likely died where he could so
often be found, in the company of junior officers in the Navy
Henson now knew that he and his rescuers hadn't left Jack behind.
THE NIGHT BEFORE TERRORISTS "murdered my father," recalls Jennifer
Punches, her parents had come to her apartment to celebrate her
birthday, which actually had been in late August, when she was on a
business trip. Her dad had pressed her to make time for them to
share some cake and a birthday wish. "I'd been putting him off and
putting him off," she says. "Monday night I was going to put him off
again because I wanted to go exercise."
But her dad insisted, even agreeing to delay their visit until 7:30
that evening, a concession from a man who turned in early on
"I can't comprehend it," says Jennifer. "He was over Monday night. I
kissed him goodbye. He went to work on Tuesday."
Her family's grief took on a different perspective with a visit to
the victims' families center set up near the Pentagon. "It was
overwhelming to think that all of these people were going through
what I'm going through right now," she says. "And the World Trade
Center--many more people."
Buckles, the former petty officer who watched the Pentagon burn from
the Navy Annex hilltop, had intended to ask Captain Punches to be
best man at his upcoming wedding. "No question," he says of the
terrorists, "they took away a part of what's good about America."
"I've never been one to hate," says Jennifer, "and it's awful to
hate this much, but I hate. I'll never get over it, and I'll never
Her brother, she says, looks at their dad's death a little
"His theory, which I love, is that God's going to need a lot of help
over the next few years, and our dad is the perfect one to have on
Her dad, she says, would like that.
THE PUNCHES FAMILY LEARNED September 21 that Jack's remains had been
identified. Navy officials could not say where he was found.
Almost 400 people attended a memorial service for him on October 7,
Punches had retired from active duty last year. He had wanted to
serve four more years, to reach 30, but the Navy planned to send him
again to the Persian Gulf, and he wouldn't uproot his family or
leave them behind. So he retired instead, then returned to his old
office six months later, this time as a civilian employee.
At Punches' retirement ceremony, junior officers from the command
center had presented the captain with the "Order of the Palm," a
replica of the medal, shaped like a palm tree, given to Henry Fonda
by sailors in the film classic Mr. Roberts. Like Fonda's character,
who had tossed his captain's prized palm tree overboard for
mistreating the crew, Punches had always been there fighting for
Along with the metal palm tree, hung from gaudy ribbon, was an Order
of the Palm certificate that read: "To Capt. Jack E. Punches. For
action against the enemy, above and beyond the
call of duty."
A video of that ceremony shows Punches pinning on the palm below his
rows of service ribbons and a roomful of sailors answering the
gesture with a standing ovation. Then Jack Punches said farewell.
"Today reminds me," he said, "of an epitaph on Boot Hill which
reads, 'I was expecting this, but not so soon.' The time has come,
much sooner than I expected or even wanted it. . . .
"Before I ask the admiral's permission to go ashore, I want every
one of you to understand"--he paused, his voice choked with
emotion--"that I have loved this uniform, the Navy, the nation. And
there has not been a single day that I was not proud to put this
uniform on and serve with the best and brightest this nation has to
This article first appeared in the
December 2001 issue of Washingtonian Magazine.