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WWII paratrooper would like to return Japanese sword he keeps in closet

If James May knew who owned the still-shining sword he keeps in a closet, he'd give it back.

Days before the Japanese surrender in 1945, May, currently 92 years old, and others from the Army's 11th Airborne Division were ordered to knock on doors near the city of Yokohama and take swords from their owners to be dumped at sea.

He figured he'd save one. But now he seems to regret the entire ordeal. The swords were heirlooms, after all, he said in his East Aurora home. And May, who served with the 457th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion between 1943 and 1946, knows about keeping things in the family.

His father, also named James, served with Britain's Royal Flying Corps in World War I, and after emigrating to North America from Scotland, worked as a carpenter and taught his son to build. Decades later, May founded Oakgrove Construction, a contracting company now run by one of his sons, Douglas, whom he passed the reigns to after his 1997 retirement.

May isn't sure why he signed up for the war – he wasn't sure back then, either. It left him with dark memories, despite luckily escaping emotional trauma unlike many combat veterans.

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James F. May, 92
Hometown: Buffalo
Residence: East Aurora
Branch: Army
Rank: Corporal
War zone: Pacific Theater, World War II
Years of service: 1943 - 1946
Most prominent honors: American Campaign Ribbon, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Ribbon with three Bronze Service Stars, Distinguished Unit Badge, Parachutist Badge, Philippines Liberation Medal, WWII Victory Medal
Specialty: Paratrooper

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"It wasn't my favorite time alive," he said, sitting with his daughter Melissa May-Brydges and her husband, Tom Brydges.

But bookending his service are two eras of homegrown success for May, who has lived his entire life in Erie County except for those three years abroad.

Born in Buffalo in 1924 to Scottish immigrants, May graduated from Lafayette High School, where he was a quarterback on the football team and excelled at track.

He found one of his fondest passions outside school: the West Side Rowing Club, which he returned to after the war.

In one pre-war photo, taken on the water at the foot of Ferry Street, he is the first rower on a cedar boat, squinting with a slight smile and tousled blond hair. Sitting behind May is John Colt, a lifelong friend who died in 2010. As boys, they had delivered The Buffalo Evening News, the Buffalo Courier-Express and the Buffalo Times.

In 1943, the two decided to enlist together, both seeking spots in the Navy. Colt got in, but May, who is colorblind, was directed to the Army instead.

World War II paratrooper James May island-hopped in the Philippines to help the Allies defeat the Japanese.

The following year, he was shipped to New Guinea, where his division trained until November, when it fought on Leyte, in the Philippines, as part of the Allies' island-hopping push. He spent most of his service as part of the liberation force in the Philippines, where he saw most of his combat.

Once, while sitting beachside on a pile of ammunition in Leyte, a kamikaze pilot zoomed less than 100 feet above May's head and dove into a cannon on a nearby ship.

"I could see his face," he said.

He entered villages throughout the country only to find entire families killed.

In January 1945, he was part of the invasion of Luzon, parachuting into the southern part of the island. That was one of the few jumps May made in combat. He was never bothered by the heights, he said, and was never shot at as he drifted down from around 700 feet.

"I got very little head-to-head, I'm happy to say," he said.

May was still in the Philippines when the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan.

"We had no idea what an atom bomb was," he said.

But he's sure they saved his life.

"We'd have never gotten off," he said.

Soon, his division moved to Okinawa and then to mainland Japan to lead the occupation. Of his time in Japan, he remembers the hospitality of the civilians, who made accommodations for the incoming soldiers and tried to feed him. He was picky, though.

After the war, May rejoined the rowing team and went on to win back-to-back national championships in 1948 and 1949. At least one of his former teammates had been killed in action.

Through the GI Bill, he earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the University at Buffalo in 1949 and soon went to work for the state Department of Transportation as a highway and bridge inspector and later as an engineer. He worked on the Skyway project.

He met his future wife, Betty Hendricks, a teacher who went to Buffalo State College, in 1950, and they've been married since.

"That screwed up my rowing career," he joked.

Along with Douglas and Melissa, who is a lawyer, they have another son, James May III, who recently retired from a career as a dentist.

May founded Oakgrove in 1961. It started in his bedroom, moved to his basement and ended up on Seneca Street in Elma, where it is still running today.

"I wanted to work for myself," he said. "My father had always worked for himself."

His father, who died in 1951, never spoke much about his experiences in World War I. And May didn't talk about his experiences serving in World War II until recently.

As in so many things, it was like father, like son.

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