Farming friends enlisted together in '42, embarked on Honor Flight together 77 years later
By STEVEN MAYER | The Bakersfield Californian | Published: May 11, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — It was the spring of '42 when James Gardiner and Jack Thompson traveled together to Los Angeles in Thompson's old Lincoln to enlist in the U.S. Navy.
It was just months after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the two farm boys from Kern County were keenly aware that America was engaged in a global fight for democracy against the Axis Powers of Germany, Japan and Italy.
"That was 77 years ago," said Gardiner's son, Keith Gardiner. "Now they're both 97. Both farmed their whole lives. Both played football as Aggies at UC Davis. They hunted and fished together. Both got their wings and flew amphibious aircraft."
And late Thursday night the two friends, along with several other military veterans, were welcomed home by some 200 family members and supporters at Meadows Field Airport in Bakersfield.
Flags were waved, hugs were exchanged, hands were shaken and gifts were given to the mixed group of veterans of World War II, The Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
U.S. Air Force Vietnam-era veteran Armando Soliz was among the men and guardians on the flight, which departed Bakersfield early Tuesday morning. The trip to Washington, D.C. was an emotional one for the former sergeant, who for the first time saw his brother's name, Thomas Soliz, engraved on the Vietnam Memorial Wall.
Lili Marsh, executive director of the organization that has flown hundreds of local military veterans to Washington, D.C., was at the airport Thursday night to welcome the vets home. She said she's been trying for years to get retired Air Force combat pilot and former high school teacher Bob Otto to join one of the Honor Flights. And this time he did.
After graduating from Kern County Union High School – now Bakersfield High – in 1939, Otto earned his associate degree at Bakersfield Junior College.
Soon he enlisted in the branch of service that would later become the U.S. Air Force.
After years of training other fighter pilots at home, Otto was on the cusp of deployment to the war in the Pacific when news came of the Japanese surrender. It was both a joy – and a bit of a disappointment.
Otto took advantage of the post-war G.I. Bill to go back to college and earn his teaching degree. But by 1950, America was at war again, this time in Korea, and the budding teacher was recalled to serve as a co-pilot with the crew of a B-26 light attack bomber.
Most of the 56 missions he flew were night missions, and Otto remembers his crew taking out several supply trains, including ammo shipments that caused spectacular fireworks in the night sky.
Once a 20 mm shell blasted through his plane's left wing. It missed the fuel cell, but he could see the protruding metal glowing a fiery orange-red.
Despite the close brush with disaster, they all made it home safely.
Later in life, Otto's record of service may have eclipsed even his combat years. He performed taps as a volunteer at more than 5,000 veteran funerals. He's probably brought more tears to the eyes of mourners than any man alive.
At Thursday's welcome home, Sisters Diane Haddock and Terri Blair were there with other family members to welcome home their brother, Michael Maron, who served in the Navy from 1971 to 1992.
When the veterans walked into the terminal, the place erupted.
Jack Thompson was overwhelmed by the outpouring, not only during the group's homecoming, but all during the trip to D.C. and back.
"When you go through an airport, the people are all clapping and are so welcoming," he said, wiping away tears. "It makes you feel so good.
"And the schoolkids in D.C., they all want to come by and shake your hand."
His friend Jim Gardiner, was similarly affected.
"This is unimaginable," he said, his eyes gleaming. "I had no idea it would happen like this.
"People just want to shake your hand. It's just out of this world."
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