SHERIDAN — U.S. Army veteran John Dewey knows what it’s like to defy odds. When he was told his marriage wouldn’t last, he celebrated 65 years with the love of his life, Elizabeth (nee Wallmark). At basic training, Dewey and fellow inductees set a record for completing a 20-mile hike. And when an officer left a base Dewey was assigned to, Dewey received a field promotion from private first class to corporal.
“I didn’t know they could do that,” Dewey said.
But what makes Dewey particularly special is his hands. Dewey survived an electrical shock that threw him 12 yards, causing his hands to be at risk for amputation. It was June 1944.
“I was cleaning a radio transmitter after dark,” Dewey said. “In Arizona in June, it’s kinda warm. I was in my shorts and undershirt.”
While a fellow radio operator was transmitting on another transmitter, a short in the electrical wiring turned the transmitter on that Dewey was cleaning. The voltage threw him 12 feet and burned his hands. Dewey got up. Using his forearms, he managed to open the door from the transmitter building and went for help.
“They commandeered a full colonel and his family to take me to the base hospital,” Dewey said. “When I woke up the next morning, a one-star general was sitting by me.”
The general wanted to know how Dewey survived. Seven other such accidents had occurred around the country with no survivors.
Dewey went back to his childhood on his family farm in Mount Caroll, Illinois, for the answer.
“My father had hired an electrician and wanted me to shadow him to learn everything I could,” Dewey said, adding that he had learned the importance of respect for and safety when working with electricity.
Dewey wanted a rubber mat while working on the radio transmitter.
“But the Army didn’t have any rubber mats in their warehouses,” Dewey said. “So a sergeant at one of the warehouses told me that I could go look for something in the salvage yard.”
Dewey took a piece of conveyor belt for a crusher in the yard and stood on the belt in front of the transmitter. He told this to the general.
“Now I know why you’re alive,” the general said.
The initial prognosis for Dewey’s hands was not good. A young doctor on duty said they were going to have to take his hands off, but no surgery was done. Two days later, the head of the medical division commandeered air transport to take Dewey to the William Beaumont military burn center in El Paso, Texas.
“A B24 was ready but I had to climb a ladder to get in,” Dewey said. “I had to put my arms through the rungs of the stairs and pull myself up with the help of a strong man behind me to push me.”
News for Dewey changed at El Paso. The doctor said rather than remove the hands, they were going to fix them.
Dewey was in the hospital for six months losing only the tip of one thumb and one forefinger.
“That’s not bad at all,” Dewey said.
Dewey was honorably discharged, married and spent a lifetime in farming, insurance, auto mechanics, construction and mining. Today, at age 91, Dewey lives at home with support from Hospital Home Care and from The Hub’s Help at Home team.
Tatiana Hom is a Help at Home homemaker and part of the team that visits Dewey each week to assist with laundry and light housekeeping.
Dewey is one of four veterans on Hom’s weekly rotations. For years, the VA has been in partnership with The Hub on Smith (formerly the Sheridan Senior Center) to provide in-home services for veterans.
“I’m really happy the VA is working with us,” Hom said.
“Damn lucky that I am alive. That rubber mat saved me,” Dewey said.
Yes, John Dewey is a lucky man who has beat odds.