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He survived Pearl Harbor and just turned 99; on the street, his fans gave him a surprise

By CAROLINE GHISOLFI | Miami Herald | Published: July 31, 2020

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MIAMI (Tribune News Service) — After surviving the attack on Pearl Harbor and spending 42 months battling on the sea against the Japanese in the early 1940s, John E. Hatcher was never again a man of many words.

But around noon Monday, more than a hundred people yelled birthday wishes to the 99-year-old. People in antique cars, fire engines and police cars waved flags, homemade signs and red, white and blue balloons. Asked how he’s feeling, Hatcher said, “Good! One-hundred percent good!”

“I’ll be here next year! Maybe! Maybe!” he added, as his wife, Barbara Cooks Hatcher, thanked the crowd for the show of love.

The U.S. Navy veteran was wearing a flower garland and a baseball cap, and waved and smiled under his face mask from a rolling chair in the American Legion parking lot in Homestead as a caravan of more than 75 cars and dozens on foot thanked him for his 20 years of service.

The caravan was led by the Homestead and Florida City police departments and Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.

Boys and girls from the Southernmost Boy Scout troop followed, carrying a large American flag. One little girl rang a cow bell, as dozens of family members, friends and neighbors, fellow veterans from the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S., and officers from the Navy and the U.S. Southern Command waved back at Hatcher from their cars.

“Thank you,” a police officer yelled as he drove by. “Happy birthday, thank you,” another sang from the next car.

Hatcher’s family stood behind him, taking pictures and watching in awe.

“It was a very proud moment. To see that so many people came out just to pay their respects and thank him for his service was very moving,” said Shawn Horton, 50, Hatcher’s stepdaughter.

The event was organized by Monique Peddle, a clinical liaison with Seasons Hospice and Palliative Care, a community organization that has made it its mission to bring joy to seniors nationwide.

Peddle met Hatcher and his family just three weeks ago during a shift. She sat for more than 10 hours talking to his wife and said she was amazed by Hatcher’s life story. Like her father, he’d served in the Navy and then joined the U.S. Postal Service, “spreading kindness to his community.”

When she learned that his 99th birthday was approaching, she said she had to organize something big.

“I wanted to make sure that this amazing man was honored appropriately, but safely, during this pandemic. He deserves an enormous party and we can’t really do that, and so a drive-by was the next best thing,” she said during the surprise birthday celebration.

“It has been a tear-jerker to see the appreciation from fellow veterans and the community as a whole for this man’s life, for his service, for his longevity, and he deserves every moment of it,” she added, with her voice cracking and tears filling her eyes.

Hatcher joined the Navy in 1939, dreaming of having the chance to ride a submarine one day.

“I never did that,” said Hatcher, who served in the Navy at a time when race was often a factor in deciding the positions and roles of sailors.

“Black men were not allowed on submarines,” Peddle said. “But he rode lots of cruisers,” Cooks Hatcher added.

It was on board one of those cruisers, the Navy’s USS Phoenix, where Hatcher worked as a cook, that he lived through the attack on Pearl Harbor — the World War II surprise military strike of the Japanese against the American naval base in Honolulu on Dec. 7, 1941. He survived Japanese bombings and kamikaze missions directed at the ship for nearly four years.

After the Japanese surrendered and the war ended, Hatcher was transferred to Key West, where he met and married his first wife, Florette Higgs. They bought a home in Richmond Heights in South Miami-Dade and raised two daughters.

Hatcher retired from the Navy in 1959 and went on to become the first black letter carrier in the Goulds.

After his wife died, Hatcher met Cooks Hatcher, on the job.

“He was the postman that we had to deliver mail in Goulds. He was charming,” Cooks Hatcher laughed, remembering the chain of events that led to their marriage nearly 33 years ago.

Horton, Cooks Hatcher’s daughter, then 18, was friends with Hatcher’s granddaughter, she said. In the late ‘80s, Horton happened to be at Hatcher’s house when he gave her his number to pass on to Cooks Hatcher.

“But I never called,” said Cooks Hatcher, who thought Hatcher was still married.

After Hatcher found Cooks Hatcher’s number and called, she said it wasn’t long before the wedding bells rang.

“We’ve had a lot of happy years,” Cooks Hatcher said.

“It’s been a good journey. It still is!” she added, with a laugh.

The couple settled in Country Walk in West Kendall but had to move after Hurricane Andrew stormed through South Florida in 1992, destroying their home. They have since lived in Melbourne in Brevard County, Pembroke Pines in Broward and, most recently, Homestead in deep South Miami-Dade.

“So we just mingled around with people of all races, all types, all personalities,” Cooks Hatcher said. Many of those people — old neighbors, friends and former coworkers — attended Monday’s celebration.

While working as mail carrier, Hatcher took evening classes in accounting at Miami Senior High School in Little Havana, working toward a mid-life dream of opening his very own storefront in Cutler Bay, which became reality 14 years later in the early 1970s.

As an accountant, Hatcher continued to help and protect his community, Peddle said.

“He helped a lot of people in that local community. Some of the people who could not pay him would pay him in kind, with maybe fruits and vegetables they produced,” she remembered family members telling her.

Hatcher’s military career inspired his granddaughter Latanya Billingslea, to join the Navy, where she climbed the ranks and retired as a captain after 21 years of service, surviving two tours of Afghanistan.

Billingslea was in New Orleans when Hatcher celebrated his 99th birthday, but Peddle said she made sure that representatives from the Navy attended in her place.

“With the pandemic, she did not feel it was a wise decision to come down here and be around her grandfather,” Peddle said. “But she thinks so much of him, of how he helped his family [and] the different ways that he helped his community.”

By his side, Horton said that the celebration charged Hatcher with hope for the future. “He prayed that he would reach 100,” Horton said. “He would be the first in the family.”

After the celebration, Hatcher had “an enormous piece of cake” in the American Legion building, Peddle said. “I could see he was happy.”

Miami Herald Visual Journalist Emily Michot contributed to this report.

©2020 Miami Herald
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