One of the toughest guys I ever knew was Joe Cannon. Tall, lanky, with a shotgun to hunt meat and a Bible to hunt souls, he trekked the wildest terrain on earth and sought out the wildest people.
And Papua New Guinea was just one place he toiled during his and wife Rosa Belle’s 65-year-career.
A new book by another adventuresome missionary, David Sitton, tells the Cannons’ story. Hard Fighting Soldier, Joe Cannon: 65 Years of Pioneer Gospel Exploits for the Glory of God, (Ambassador International) describes a Canadian street brawler who went on to become a fighter for God.
My paths crossed with Joe Cannon’s numerous times: on Okinawa in the 1960s, Memphis in the ’70s and Papua New Guinea in the ’80s. I met David Sitton when visiting my dad in New Guinea in 1981, accompanied him on a couple of jungle treks, and we’ve been friends ever since.
Like me, David was influenced heavily by Joe Cannon as a teenager.
Joe — who was a Church of Christ missionary but never seemed bound by denominational (or non-denominational, if you will) dogma — was the soul of humor, patience and can-do spirit. He and his angelic wife Rosa Belle nursed me through a case of malaria as I traveled the highlands of New Guinea in 1981.
Joe’s influence was even greater on David, who wound up devoting his life to missions and now leads an organization called To Every Tribe.
Joe died in 2012 at age 85, having served as a missionary in Japan, Okinawa, New Guinea and Ukraine, among other places. His story cried out to be told, and thank God David took up the call.
Not only did David work alongside his mentor for years, he interviewed countless people to gather details of Joe’s life.
As a kid in Toronto, “Joe became a fighter and the leader of the Rideau Rats, a gang of local street thugs,” the book reports, noting that Rideau was the street where Joe lived. “They roamed their low-income neighborhood for about three years, instigating trouble wherever they went.”
A local minister recruited the boys to a community baseball team and blackmailed Joe into attending church camp by agreeing to drop charges in a rock-throwing incident. Nevertheless, Joe was expelled from camp within 24 hours for setting fire to an outhouse. But he had no way home, so the leaders allowed him to stay, and by the end of the week he and his friends accepted Christ and were baptized.
Like the apostle Paul, Joe became as fervent for the gospel as he had once defied it. He went to Harding College in Searcy, Arkansas, married Rosa Belle, and they looked around for the most challenging mission field on the planet.
They found it in Japan, where World War II had just ended and Gen. Douglas MacArthur issued a call for Christian missionaries.
“I believed Jesus wanted me to serve among the most unloved people I could find,” Joe said. “At that time, the most unloved people were Japanese.”
The Cannons served there from 1947 to 1961, starting churches, helping found Ibaraki Christian College, working with kindergartens, orphanages, retirement homes, sewing and English language schools — anything and everything to help others and share the gospel.
In 1961 they moved to the island of Okinawa south of Japan, which is where I met them in 1968. My dad and Joe became best friends.
In time Joe, a pioneer at heart, felt the need for new fields and set his sights on one of the most primitive places on earth: Papua New Guinea.
The Cannons settled in the town of Lae on the coast in 1971 and started from scratch. My dad joined them as a missionary five years later, and I showed up in 1981 looking for adventure. David Sitton and I found plenty of it on a long jungle trek — for me, just a taste of the life Joe Cannon lived.
In the book, David shares many of Joe’s wild adventures as he made contacts with the local people.
“Soon hundreds of people were stopping by the house to get their wounds bandaged or hitch the occasional ride to the hospital for more serious accidents.” the book reports.
“In a community rife with routine drunkenness, fist fights, and marital spats, there were many mishaps. Joe was often recruited to referee these late-night disturbances.”
Joe’s own handiness with his fists came in handy.
“On another occasion, Joe and RB (Rose Belle) were giving refuge to a battered wife. The unruly husband showed up at the door and got abusive with Joe. The former Rideau Rat laid him out with a single fist thump to the side of his skull!”
Joe actually had to buy a pair of handcuffs to make his own citizen’s arrests, though he later bailed troublemakers out of jail and treated them to breakfast and a sermon.
That was just in town. Things could really get wild in the jungle.
Joe converted a Chimbu tribesman named Simon, who invited Joe to his village. But when the inhabitants learned he was there to preach, a riot broke out. A mob surrounded Joe and a man came at him with an axe, but Simon intervened in the nick of time. The villagers arrested Joe, put him on trial and ordered him to leave.
In another village, “two chiefs wedged themselves into the hut where we were camped and threatened, with much tribal bravado, to kill us later that night,” writes Sitton, who often accompanied Joe on his bush treks.
“Joe sat on a stool by the fire, listening and drinking his coffee. Then he calmly told the men, ‘My boys (referring to me and another young missionary) will be asleep in the back room. I’ll be asleep right here in the front room.’ He pointed to his sleeping bag crumpled up next to the entryway of the hut. ‘When you come back, kill me first because I’m the leader of this team!’
“The men slunk into the night grumbling, and we slept — Joe better than us — without further incident.”
Even more daunting than hostile tribesmen was the terrain itself. “Many admired Joe, but few were able to walk with him for very long,” Sitton writes.
Joe often carried a shotgun and bagged meat for the pot, which put him in good favor with meat-hungry tribesmen.
I was gratified that Sitton included a mention of my own father’s role in the New Guinea work.
“Bob Herndon was an old friend from Joe’s and RB’s days in Okinawa. When Bob retired from a successful career in civil service, Joe challenged him for PNG (Papua New Guinea). Bob’s arrival coincided perfectly with the rapid increase of new missionaries who needed long-term visas and work permits. Wise in the ways of government bureaucracy, Bob skillfully traversed multiple layers of administrative red tape and, over four years of self-supporting ministry, acquired more than 90 visas for the incoming workforce.”
Joe and Rosa Belle served in New Guinea until 1984. Then they started a mission school in Memphis and also did work in Irian Jaya (the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea), Belarus and Okinawa.
Joe cared for Rosa Belle as she declined into dementia. She died in 2002 at age 79.
Incapable of retirement, Joe married a woman named Betty Dollar and, heedless of age, they moved to Ukraine to serve as missionaries until failing health forced them back to Memphis.
Though Joe Cannon was one of the toughest men I’ve ever met, he never acted “tough.” I guess that’s the way it is with the really tough ones.
Ernest Herndon is a Staff Reporter for the Enterprise Journal newspaper in McComb, Mississippi. He covers outdoors, religion, Pike County courthouse and Liberty and Gloster town boards. He plays banjo, fiddle and banjo-mandolin for Dogwood Cross bluegrass-gospel group and is author of numerous books including In the Hearts of Wild Men. This article was originally published on www.enterprise-journal.com on March 29, 2015.