Maj. John Hughes, a ‘Man of Legends,’ was Orange County Calif.’s last known Pearl Harbor veteran
The Orange County Register January 23, 2022
(Tribune News Service) — A photo shows John Hughes and four other Marines hunkered down on a airfield shooting rifles at attacking Japanese planes overhead. Black smoke and explosions surround them.
But it was years before the humble yet highly decorated Marine aviator, the last known Pearl Harbor veteran living in Orange County, really told his family about his World War II experiences … and yes, bravery.
Hughes died earlier this month at age 102, just shy of his 103rd birthday. He was laid to rest Wednesday, Jan. 19.
Hughes was a man of great humility, who loved his country and served it proudly for decades, those who knew him said. He enjoyed a healthy lifestyle, though smoked the occasional cigar and enjoyed a martini. At 69, he graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in history. He was there with two sons, but graduated ahead of them.
“He lived through a lot of history that he learned about there, and sometimes he had a different version,” said his son Jerry Hughes, 70.
And, he made quite a bit of military history, too.
The beginning of World War II
On Dec. 7, 1941, Hughes, who grew up on a modest farm in the then-community of Rivera and joined the Marine Corps shortly after graduating high school in 1937, was based at Mooring Mast, Ewa, Oahu, Hawaii. He was just headed out to grab the paper when he heard a low-flying sound and looked up to see airplanes with a big red ball on the side and torpedoes underneath. He and other Marines were briefed that the Japanese might be up to something.
“He knew what it was and he mustered everybody he could up and they started shooting,” Jerry Hughes said. “He said it was pretty hairy, but it was all he could do.”
A snapshot of those heroics is captured in that photo by an unknown photographer. Just minutes later, there were more Japanese planes. Hughes and other Marines tried push the planes parked on the airfield apart, so one wouldn’t blow up the next one.
Then Hughes heard what sounded like massive thunder coming from Pearl Harbor and he figured the USS Arizona was hit.
In two hours, the attack on Pearl Harbor was over. The cost at Ewa: 33 airplanes destroyed, 14 damaged, four Marines killed.
Despite the drama and historical significance of this event that launched the U.S. into World War II, Jerry Hughes said his father didn’t talk much about that incident or the many other missions he would fly during the war and then later during the Korean War.
“Most of those who served then didn’t talk about,” Jerry Hughes said. “He liked flying and he talked about that, but not about the horrors of war.”
Uncovering John Hughes’ service
It wouldn’t be until much later that Hughes’ children would learn more about their father’s career and his significance to Marine aviation.
On the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor in 2011. Hughes and his family traveled to Hawaii. As part of the event, Hughes was interviewed for a living history segment by Danny Martinez, a host for the National Park Service and Discovery Channel.
Jerry Hughes and his siblings listened in.
“We found out things we didn’t know,” Jerry Hughes said, “and learned more about his experiences during the war.”
They found out how the once airplane mechanic turned into a pilot and the effect the Pearl Harbor attack had on that.
Hughes volunteered and received orders to attend flight school in Pensacola. After training, he was deployed again to the South Pacific where the Marines were fighting the Japanese across the many island chains. Hughes’ job was to dive-bomb the enemy.
He flew at least 50 missions over Guadalcanal, a critical battle for the Americans. The fight in the Solomon Islands was the first step toward the surrender of Japan. The Marines lost 1,152 on the ground and 55 in the air.
By 1945, his combat missions had stacked up to 150.
While Hughes’ children only got a better insight into his service after the visit to Pearl Harbor, some local Orange County Marine veterans knew of his heroics.
One such man is Dwight Hansen, a retired Marine aviation electrician who served at the El Toro Marine base from 1987 to 1993. Though he is half Hughes’s age, he became fascinated by the elder Marine’s tales.
Passionate about the military and military history, Hansen attended annual Memorial Day celebrations in the county. He was especially fascinated with the guys in the white caps who had served at Pearl Harbor. At appropriate occasions, he’d ask for them to pose in photos with him and his three children, he said.
“They drew me in because my father was in World War II, and I love history, especially living history,” said Hansen, 52, of Irvine.
Hansen also attended monthly meetings of the Chapter 14 Pearl Harbor Survivor Association, which is where he first met Hughes.
That chapter was disbanded in 2014, because so few of the veterans remained. The last surviving member, Dick Higgins, who served in the Navy and whose barracks on Ford Island were the first to be bombed, moved out of Orange County in 2013. He is 100 and now lives in Oregon.
Higgins last saw Hughes in 2016, he said, at the 75th Pearl Harbor anniversary in Hawaii.
“It’s nice to have been with the other veterans,” Higgins said from Bend, where he lives with his granddaughter, Angela Norton. “We were a band of brothers.”
Norton recalls the visit how excited her “gramps” was to see Hughes.
“They chatted all night long swapping stories,” she said. “It’s a special camaraderie that can never be broken.”
The years of that camaraderie with Hughes was also something Hansen said he enjoyed.
“He was very understated and acted like what he did was no big deal,” Hansen said of the man he had become good friends with. They’d meet for lunch, celebrate the Marine Corps birthday and travel to Pearl Harbor anniversaries in Hawaii.
“My son calls these Marines ‘Men of Legends,’” Hansen said, adding his son was a Marine combat photographer. “And that sums it up. As Marines, we were told the stories of those before us, and we are huge into tradition. To meet a Man of Legend, who was at Pearl Harbor and the Guadalcanal and all over the South Pacific, is amazing.”
Hansen said it was also Hughes’ example that inspired his children to serve. One is in the Army, one was in the Marines, and his youngest just signed up for the Marines.
“Growing up around these World War II veterans and seeing the kind of men they were and how they were willing to die for our county and freedoms,” he said. “My kids want to help pay back what they have given and follow in their footsteps.”
The legend continues
After serving in World War II, Hughes continued his Marine Corps career and was assigned to the El Toro base. Not long after, he married Mary Duba from Libertyville, Ill. But by 1952, he was back in action after having worked with famed aviator Igor Sikorsky to develop the Sikorsky helicopter. He flew that same helicopter in medi-evac and rescue missions during the Korean War.
He would later tell fellow Marines like Hansen and his children that these missions to save others were more important to him than any of the dive-bombing flights during World War II because it was “doing good.”
After continued his military service at Cherry Point, N.C., at military schools and at the Pentagon, Hughes returned to El Toro to teach young aviators to fly helicopters in 1961. He retired there in 1964.
Jerry Hughes said he and his siblings take great satisfaction in their father’s life well-lived. He said his father didn’t consider a civilian flying career because “if you don’t have ordnance, what’s the point?” Instead, he managed a small store.
“We are incredibly proud and we know the sacrifices all those guys made,” Jerry Hughes said. “He was a true Marine who honored everything about the Corps. Basically, whatever they did, he was ready to do it.”
Hughes lived the rest of his life in the home he and Mary bought in Santa Ana in 1961. He died there, too, on Jan. 7.
He was a calm man who never raised his voice, and he taught his children the values of humility, hard work and service, his son said.
For Jerry Hughes, he said he will most remember that his father lived a life of “no regrets.”
“He didn’t dwell on the past, but was proud of the past,” Jerry Hughes said. “He was proud of his service and what America stands for. He didn’t boast and he knew he did his duty. And, he respected other Marines for doing the same, especially ground troops, those were the real heroes.”
Hughes is survived by his children: Lorie Franck, John Hughes, Jerry Hughes, Nancy Hughes and Jim Hughes and nine grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren.
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