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Remember This Name
(Jack Punches, Pentagon Victim 9/11/2001)

 

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.

Source:   http://www.militaryupdate.com/remember_this_name.htm


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 colleagues were.


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 me?"

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 Punches.


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 stupid stuff."


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 interior courtyard.


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 first floor.


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 his children.
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 kit.


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 went fine.


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 runs.


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 bigger flashlight.


"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 himself.


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 accept it.


"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 safety.


"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 sighted.


"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 melted.

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 normal.


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 building."


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 Command Center.
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 weeknights.


"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 forgive."


Her brother, she says, looks at their dad's death a little differently.


"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 your side."


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, 2001.


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 them.


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 offer."  

This article first appeared in the December 2001 issue of Washingtonian Magazine.