Inside a Santa Ana home, county officials come across a U.S. hero
By KELLY PUENTE | The Orange County Register | Published: November 12, 2016
SANTA ANA (Tribune News Service) — When Thomas Walsh died in his family’s longtime home in March at age 69, he left behind no will or trust or known heirs.
The county’s Public Administrator’s Office, which handles the affairs in such instances, stepped in to manage the estate.
And in the Walsh home in Santa Ana’s Floral Park neighborhood, the county workers discovered that Thomas Walsh’s late father, Kenneth Ambrose Walsh, was a World War II hero, a fighter pilot who earned the Congressional Medal of Honor and had kept a mini museum chronicling his decades of service in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Medals, photos and paintings of fighter jets adorned walls and tabletops. A framed photo showed a smiling Walsh meeting President Franklin Roosevelt. Another shows him bending down to received the Medal of Honor as his wife, Beulah, clasps the blue ribbon.
Walsh kept all of his flight logs and piles of albums filled with grainy photos of his military buddies. In a glass display case were medals – the Distinguished Flying Cross (he earned seven in all), the Air Medal (he earned 15), and the World War II Victory Medal.
“He kept just about everything,” said Ron Freeman, chief deputy public administrator. “It’s a wonderful tribute to his great service to our country.”
This trove of medals and memorabilia, where would it end up?
A MISSING MEDAL
Kenneth Walsh died from a heart attack in 1998, at age 81, as he was preparing to head to an air show in Oshkosh, Wis. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
His other son, Kenneth Walsh Jr., a Vietnam veteran, had died four months earlier. His wife, Beulah, died in 2001, leaving Thomas alone in the home.
After Thomas Walsh’s March death, the county soon discovered that there wasn’t a will or trust or obvious heir.
The Public Administrator’s Office, which handles 100 or so cases a year, secured the home, kept an eye on the estate and began working to locate any relatives.
If none were found, the estate, valued at roughly $2 million with the Santa Ana home, would have gone to the state. But officials are in touch with some relatives, although it is unclear so far as to their wishes for the memorabilia.
Perhaps, Freeman said, the county could explore options to possibly display the fighter pilot’s collection for the public.
“Lots of people would love to see this,” he said.
On Thursday, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, which oversees the Public Administrator’s Office, put on display Walsh’s collection so its employees could see it, in honor of the 241st anniversary of the Marine Corps: dozens of framed photos, medals and other treasures.
But one of the most important medals was missing.
The county found the blue ribbon for his Medal of Honor – the country’s highest military honor – but not the medal itself.
“I don’t think it’s lost,” Freeman said. “I’m sure it’s somewhere, but we don’t have it.”
A LIFETIME OF SERVICE
As of July, there have been 3,515 Medals of Honor awarded to military heroes since the first was presented in 1863. Walsh, in an interview with the Register in 1987, credited his to training and luck.
“You train and train and train,” he said. “When you’re in mortal combat, you act instinctively, and the trained man survives. Courage is a split-second decision. And let’s face it, you have to be lucky.”
On Aug. 15, 1943, Walsh, at the controls of a F4U Corsair, led eight planes protecting U.S. ships and infantry near Vella Lavella, part of a chain that makes up the Soloman Islands, where they encountered 30 Japanese fighter planes. Three
American planes developed engine trouble and had to peel off.
“First Lt. Walsh repeatedly dived his plane into an enemy formation outnumbering his own division six-to-one,” his Medal of Honor citation reads, “and, although his plane was hit numerous times, shot down two Japanese dive bombers and one fighter.”
Two weeks later, Walsh became separated from his group and was alone when he encountered 50 Japanese fighter planes. He managed to destroy four before he was shot down and rescued at sea.
In all, Walsh shot down 21 Japanese aircraft. The number of air victories to earn the title of ace varies. Oftentimes, that number is five. Clearly, Walsh was an ace.
In 1945, he was awarded the Medal of Honor. In the Korean War, he served as a transport pilot. His last post was at the now-shuttered El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.
He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1962, and at some point settled in Santa Ana instead of returning to his native East Coast.
A MARINE NEIGHBOR
After his death, Kenneth Walsh’s estate and assets were never properly passed on to his wife and then on to the surviving son, so the county found itself trying to resolve the estates of the parents and the two sons. Thomas Walsh, an IRS Treasury investigator, never even transferred the house deed into his own name after his mother died.
“What’s surprising is that it had taken three or four deaths in the family to get to this point,” said Freeman, the deputy public administrator.
Thomas Walsh’s body was found in the home after he didn’t show up to the hospital for a scheduled surgery, neighbors said, and someone in the neighborhood called police after she hadn’t seen him in several weeks.
Neighbors in Floral Park in Santa Ana, once covered with orange and walnut groves and now home to picturesque residences built in the 1920s to the 1950s, said the elder Walshes were friendly and kept an immaculate yard.
Beulah Walsh’s Chevy Impala, with 495 miles on the odometer, remained in the garage long after her death, neighbors said. Thomas Walsh was living alone by the time Dick Austin and his family moved in next door in 2001.
Originally from Forth Worth, Texas, Austin was a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot who served six years of active duty and five years in the reserves, retiring as a major.
Thomas Walsh was at first aloof, but his eyes lit up when he learned of Austin’s military service.
“He was exited to hear that I was a pilot and got to talking about his dad and all the stuff he had done and the number of kills he had,” said Austin, 64. “He was extremely proud of his dad. To work his way up like that to one of the top pilots in all of the Pacific area is pretty phenomenal.”
Austin said Thomas Walsh would sometimes travel to Florida and Washington, D.C., apparently to consider donating at least some of his father’s military memorabilia to a museum or veterans’ orgranization. He said Walsh mentioned having cousins in Washington, D.C., on his father’s side, but said he was not in touch with them.
The neighbors became friendly, sometimes talking about the military. Walsh never once invited Austin into his home to show off his father’s collection.
“It’s a shame,” he said. “Because as a Marine, I would love to see it.”
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