Four legendary American military heroes, whose ages ranged from 70 to 97, have left us in recent weeks.
The most decorated of them was Jon R. Cavaiani,, an Army Special Forces sergeant, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for single-handedly taking out a squad of North Vietnamese soldiers in order to protect several of his comrades, South Vietnamese native highlanders called Montagnards, during the Vietnam War.
Despite suffering shrapnel wounds and burns over much of his body, Cavaiani, then 27, stood atop a bunker in plain sight and fired his machine gun at the North Vietnamese troops until the Montagnards were able to board a helicopter and fly to safety in enemy territory near Khe Sanh in June of 1971.
A bullet hit Cavaiani in the back and he played dead when the North Vietnamese stripped him of his boots. He later was captured and spent two horrific years in a POW camp before his release. Cavaiani died in Northern California at the age of 70 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He is survived by his fifth wife, Barbara.
Undoubtedly the best known of these four heroes I am citing today was World War II Army Capt. Louis Zamperini, a USC track star and 1936 Olympic runner, who spent 47 days adrift in a life raft after his B-24 bomber on which he served as the bombardier, fell into the Pacific due to an engine malfunction in 1944.
Surviving on rainwater and raw fish, the 5-foot, 9-inch Zamperini, whose weight dropped from 125 to 75 pounds during those 47 days, was eventually picked up by a Japanese warship and spent more than a year in a Japanese prison camp where he was starved, beaten and tortured before repatriated home at war’s end.
Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 book “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption,” that featured accounts of Zamperini’s ordeals adrift in the ocean and in the Japanese prison, sold more than 3 million copies and was on the New York Times Bestseller List for several months. A Universal Pictures motion picture titled “Unbroken” based on the Hillenbrand book, that was directed by Angelina Jolie and stars Jack O’Connell as Zamperini, is due to be released on Christmas Day this year.
Zamperini, who died in Los Angeles at 97, is survived by a son, daughter and several grandchildren.
The third late hero I am honoring is Theodore “Dutch” Van Kirk, the navigator and last surviving member of the 12-man crew of the B-29 “Enola Gay” piloted by Col. Paul W. Tibbets Jr., that flew from Tinian in the Northern Marianas Islands to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Three days later, a second B-29 named “Bockscar,” also flew from Tinian and dropped an a-bomb on Nagasaki. Several days later, the Japanese surrendered and World War II came to a close.
Van Kirk retired from the military in 1946 with the rank of major and worked 35 years as a chemical engineer for the DuPont company until retiring. He lived many years in Northern California and died in Georgia at 93, leaving two sons, two daughters, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
The fourth late hero I am privileged to write about was Chester Nez, the last of the original Navajo Code Talkers, who died recently in Albuquerque, N.M., also at the age of 93.
Nez was selected by the U.S. Marine Corps to be one of its 29 Code Talkers who were assigned to WW II Pacific combat zones, such as Saipan, Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal, to transmit secret U.S. military messages in the Navajo language which could not be understood by Japanese intelligence officers.
A member of the all-Navajo 382nd Marine Platoon, Nez was born on an Indian reservation and attended an Indian boarding school that did not permit him and the other students to speak their Navajo language. This strict-English-only rule proved to be a blessing in disguise, for the Marines needed the bilingual Navajos to speak both languages fluently.
Nez also served in the Marines during the Korean War and worked at the VA Medical Center in Albuquerque before retiring in 1973.
Nez, who lost both legs because of diabetes, was honored along with his fellow Code Talkers by a congressional bill signed into law by President Bill Clinton and with the Congressional Gold Medal presented personally by President George W. Bush.
I also want to honor Erino Kumana. Although he was not an American and did not serve in the U.S. military, this native of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, along with a fellow fisherman, was responsible for spotting and rescuing Navy Lt. John F. Kennedy, the future president, whose Navy PT-109 patrol boat had been sliced in half and sunk by a Japanese destroyer in early August 1943.
Kennedy and his surviving crewmen had swum to a deserted island, where they were discovered by Kumana and his friend. Kumana then returned to his boat carrying a message to Navy authorities that had been carved by Kennedy into a coconut.
The message, which told of the plight of Kennedy and his men, was delivered by Kumana to officers at a nearby USN base, and the castaways were soon rescued.
Personally honored by President Kennedy, Kumana died at the age of 96 in his native village. He left nine children, 50 grandchildren and 75 great-grandchildren!
David C. Henly is Publisher Emeritus.