Coronado becomes quite a magical place on 4th of July weekend. There are so many events that take place island-wide for all of the family to enjoy. The Fourth of July Parade is a time to reflect on our country and those that are here today, and those who have gone before, to preserve our rights as a nation.
The Avenue of Heroes Neighborhood Association sponsored an entry in this year’s parade honoring six WWII Veterans. They were transported through the parade route along with their families in vintage Packard vehicles, courtesy of the Packard Club of San Diego. John and Barbara Tato of Coronado hosted a pre-parade breakfast. The six honored veterans were Dean Laird, Virgil Woods, Robert Brakley, Richard Hayward, Andy Mills, and Stan Abele. It was an honor to get to talk to these gentleman, and see them interact with each other sharing stories of themselves and their service.
Andrew “Andy” Mills, has a great smile, kind eyes, a quiet demeanor, and is just over 100 years old (102 to be exact). Born and raised in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, he entered the Navy as a young man in 1935. At that time Mr. Mills served as a steward onboard the USS Yorktown. He got to know the men that he worked for and went above and beyond what was required to ensure that the men on his ship (to include the Skipper) had everything they needed. That particular ship was involved in the Battle of Midway, which was a turning point in the war against Japan after Pearl Harbor. At the time that Mr. Mills was on the USS Yorktown, the ship and its crew endured days of fighting fires and stabilizing the ship after being hit by Japanese torpedoes. Every man on that ship worked together and tirelessly to keep her afloat as a team and with no segregation. This attack would continue on another day. The sailors and crew would eventually be transferred to a destroyer and taken home to San Diego.
This summer, 2017, a new barracks building on North Island will be completed, honoring Andy and his bravery. The NAS North Island barracks will don his name: Andrew Mills Hall. These barracks will house the roughly 900 single sailors in our area. It was an honor to be able to speak with Mr. Mills and meet his niece, nephew, and their sweet dog.
Stan Abele is a young 93 years old, and currently lives in Coronado. As a young man he built model airplanes, and loved the idea of being a pilot. Growing up during the depression made it difficult for many young men to enter college, which is a requirement for all US Navy Pilots. He thought that his dream to be a pilot was over. He went back to work, until one day his stars changed. There was an ad in the local paper that said the Navy was in need of pilots, so the college requirement was waived. Wouldn’t you know, Stan was first in line the next morning to sign up for duty. He was trained to fly the Corsair in 1945. He was stationed on the USS Bunkerhill. One morning he was preflighting his “bird” when two kamikazes flew overhead and were diving towards the aircraft carrier. The first one hit just forward of him and his plane. The other behind him crashing into the lower decks. He and 10 other military members tried to find a path to safety. This group was forced by fire and smoke to the aft part of the ship. Their only chance at survival was to make the 80 foot drop to the ocean. Thankfully they had life vests, and deployed the shark repellent into the water. As they saw the ship and company move off into the distance, they were not sure if they would survive. Six hours later, and minus one shoe, they were picked up by a destroyer to be delivered to the Bunkerhill later. Stan recalls the steward on that ship looking at him and realizing he was without a shoe. In moments, the steward met back up with Stan and handed him a pair of his shoes, he was so very thankful (he recalls that he was sad he never got that gentleman’s name). He continued to serve in the US Navy. He then met and married his wife Ethel (who has since passed away), returning back to the San Diego/Coronado area.
Virgil Woods was a Chief Petty Officer in the US Navy in 1945. Born and raised on a farm in Des Moines, Iowa, he was, as a young man, a very hard worker on his family farm. Perhaps it was that work ethic instilled in him that allowed him to be successful in the United States Navy. He told me a story about how when he was young he was a thin boy (mostly because of the long hours he would put in on the farm on a daily basis), but he liked to memorize things in his off time. Before he went to boot camp he was 5’1″ and 100 lbs., but the boot camp food was good and he was able to gain weight. While he was in the Navy, he served as a Chief Petty Officer (CPO), and an air crewman on the SBD Dive Bomber (he would fly at times, and he would also be the aircraft engineer). Stationed overseas and performing duties in the Pacific Theater, he was part of the Battle at Guadalcanal. Their mission was to protect the supply and communications with allied forces from Japanese threats. At the time the Dive Bomber was the only aircraft that could deliver a bomb, and he felt at that time they were as prepared to go to war as they were to go to the moon. He said that he worked heavily with the Marines. “They [the Marines] would make it clear that they were Marines and not in the Navy.” The way he said it made me chuckle. They knew they were all on the same team and mission, but wanted to be sure that Navy personnel knew they were not Navy. He showed me his Purple Heart, aircrew wings, two Good Conduct Medals donned with his Chief pins. What was most wonderful about Virgil, is that as a young man he memorized The Declaration of Independence, The Gettysburg Address, and other historical documents. At the age of 93, he sat next to me and recited them. Virgil is a kind man with a wonderful sense of humor, even regarding our current politics. He left me with this quote by Benjamin Franklin, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately.” As he sat in his car waiting to leave for for the parade, he changed out of his ball cap and into his Chief Petty Officer khaki cover, straightened it and smiled.
Dean “Diz” Laird, CDR ret., was a United Stated Navy Fighter Pilot during three campaigns; WWII 1942-1945, the Cold War 1945 to 1972, and The Korean War 1950-1951. He is the only pilot to have had successful missions against Japanese and German enemy planes. After flight training, he was one of the first pilots to land an aircraft on the USS Midway. He is a California native, born in Loomis, CA in 1921. Like many pilots, Mr. Laird was a young boy with dreams to become a fighter pilot. He had an extensive and impressive flight history. For his bravery and expert flying he received the distinguished Flying Cross. His citation is as follows “For heroism and extraordinary achievement in aerial flight as Pilot of a Fighter Plane in Fighting Squadron FOUR, attached to the U.S.S. ESSEX, in action against enemy Japanese forces in the Tokyo area, February 17, 1945. While protecting friendly bomber planes attacking heavily defended aircraft engine factories, Lieutenant Laird engaged and destroyed two hostile fighter aircraft, thereby assisting materially in the accomplishment of the assigned mission. His airmanship and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.” He is a quiet man who enjoyed meeting the other WWII Veterans that morning and hearing their stories. To have met such an aviation legend was quite an honor.
Robert Brakley and Richard Hayward
There were two other gentleman there that I did not get the opportunity to speak with. The first is Robert Brakley. He was there with his family and friends. He served in the United States Army in Okinawa 1945. His rank was Technician Third Grade. The other Veteran is Richard Hayward. He served in the United States Army and United States Air Force as a Chaplain from 1953-1973. He retired as a Lieutenant Colonel.
I am so thankful for these men, their courage, and for their service to this great country. As I reflected on the conversations I had, it was an honor to hear these stories from these men. Stepping into the unknown territory of foreign wars, letters from home not instant like we have today, learning that in a time of a segregated military that in the time of need men are men, sailors and airmen are sailors and airmen, and that most importantly we are ALL Americans.