Jim Gregory’s decision to write a history book began with three deaths and a tombstone.
While he was a history teacher at Arroyo Grande High School, the now-retired Gregory had a car that wouldn’t pass a smog test. On one of the many visits to the mechanic, he walked across the street to the Arroyo Grande District Cemetery, where he spotted a white marble tombstone with an oval portrait of a young U.S. Marine.
“The kids always asked, ‘Do we have to know dates?’ and I’d say we wanted them to know that Lincoln was for the most part in the 19th century,” Gregory joked. “But in this case, the date of death was March 1, 1945, and I thought, ‘That has to be Iwo Jima.’ So I started looking him up, and one thing followed another.”
Gregory tracked the life story of the Marine, Pvt. Louis Brown, and found that he was the son of Portuguese immigrant parents who lived in Corbett Canyon. He also discovered that Brown died two days before his 21st birthday.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“It was like a detective story,” Gregory said. “I was following this thread. And I’m a stubborn little Irishman; when I get on to something like that, I just love it.”
I didn’t tell half of (the stories). I didn’t even scratch the surface.
Jim Gregory, author of “World War II Arroyo Grande”
The 158-page nonfiction book tells the story of Arroyo Grande’s participation in World War II — from the tale of a local pilot who won a Silver Star for bringing his crippled plane back to base only to be shot down and killed weeks later, to stories of Japanese-American families and individuals sent to internment camps during the height of the war.
“It’s a cliché, but it was like peeling an onion,” Gregory said. “And I didn’t tell half of them. I didn’t even scratch the surface. At some point I had to stop writing.”
Gregory said the stories he uncovered resonated deeply with him.
“I would never be a good academic historian because I’m far too personal,” he said. “I get involved. In fact, in (the process of writing) the preface ... I had this weird sensation. These young men were my father’s age, and as I learned their stories, it was almost as if they became my sons. I have two sons who are in their 20s, so it was not that far removed to imagine what a parent’s heartbreak would have been.”
The heartbreak resonated with Gregory on a different level as well.
Brown was the spark for the book, but it was the deaths of two of Gregory’s close friends, Joseph Ira Loomis and Jim Hayes, in recent years — coupled with the memory of his late mother — that prompted him to begin writing “World War II Arroyo Grande.”
“I’m 63, almost 64, and I started to have this gnawing idea that maybe it’s not true that everybody else is going to keep dying but me,” he said. “So I better get off my horse and do something. So then I said, ‘Well, what do I want to write about?’ ”
For Gregory, the subject was obvious: his hometown.
“I remember we first moved out to Huasna when I was 5,” he said. “And I remember looking around and thinking, ‘This is a special place.’ And that always stuck somewhere in my 5-year-old brain. So in a way, this book is kind of a love letter to this place.”
Now that Gregory has published his first book, he said he plans to continue writing about the history of South County.
Next up is likely the tale of Eleanor Walling, also known as the “Bobbed-Hair Bandit.” An Avila Beach violin prodigy, she robbed a bank and was sentenced to five years in San Quentin at the age of 20.
“So I figure, you know, I might have to do something about the 1920s and ’30s,” he said. “There was a lot of labor strife, racism — especially toward Filipinos — and WPA projects that are hugely important. ... So I think there’s a very important story to tell there.”
If you go
Jim Gregory will be signing copies of his book at Nan’s Books in Grover Beach on Jan. 21 from 5 to 7 p.m. The book is also available to purchase through Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/World-War-Arroyo-Grande-Military/dp/146711958X/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8.