We continue to observe the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II this year, and today I am honoring the recent deaths of seven military veterans whose unique wartime contributions will never be forgotten.
Their ages ranged from 88 to 100, two of them served in the U.S. Navy, four in the Army Air Corps (which became the U.S. Air Force in 1946) and one in the Royal Netherlands Army, who went on to become a noted Hollywood film actor.
Astonishingly, two of the seven, close friends and both 91, died the same day in Los Angeles. A third, a member of their squadron, died three days later at 88.
These three men were among the first African-American airmen to serve in the U.S. military. As members of the famed all-black Army Air Corps’ Tuskegee Airmen who served in the European Theater during the war, their bomber and fighter squadrons were comprised of pilots, navigators, air crews, nurses, mechanics and support personnel.
The two Tuskegee men who died the same day, Jan. 5, were aircraft mechanics Joseph Shambrey and Clarence Huntley Jr. The third man, Milford Craig, was a pilot who died at his home in Sacramento on Jan. 8.
The Tuskegee Airmen have been celebrated by historians and immortalized by Hollywood. Approximately 1,000 were pilots and another 15,000 were aircraft crew members and ground personnel. Nearly 100 lost their lives in combat and hundreds more were wounded in action. The Tuskegee fliers downed scores of German military aircraft, but they and their families suffered relentless racial discrimination, segregation and humiliation in America from white servicemen and civilians such as not being permitted to enter officer’s clubs, rent off-base housing and eat and sleep at white-only restaurants and hotels.
The Netherlands Army officer, Robert Boon, who died Jan. 18 at age 98 in Los Angeles, volunteered for the Dutch Army in 1943. After training in the U.S., he was sent to Australia where he was attached to the Australian Army and took part in the invasion of Japanese-held Borneo, for which he was decorated for bravery.
Following war’s end, he acted in plays in the Dutch East Indies and eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he appeared in several feature motion pictures such as “Fort Algiers” (1953) that also starred Raymond Burr and Yvonne De Carlo, “Berlin Express” (1948) starring Robert Ryan, Merle Oberon and Paul Lukas and “Queen of Blood” (1966) that featured John Saxon and Basil Rathbone. I’ve seen “Berlin Express” on TV... it’s a great war and spy epic. Boon continued working in films and television up to his late 80s, when he retired.
The fifth of the seven men I am honoring is Fitzhugh “Fitz” Fulton Jr., a veteran Army Air Corps and USAF pilot who had a 23-year military career and subsequent distinguished service as a civilian test pilot.
Fulton, who died earlier this month in Thousand Oaks, Calif. at age 89, flew 200 missions during the 1948-1949 Berlin airlift, where he delivered food and fuel to West Berliners during the Soviet siege. He also was involved in the Operation Crossroads atomic bomb tests in the Pacific in 1946 and flew 55 sorties in a Douglas B-26 as a combat pilot during the Korean War.
As a test pilot, he flew in 60 different kinds of aircraft, from sailplanes to fighter jets, achieving many speed, altitude and endurance records. He won four USAF Distinguished Flying Crosses and was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
The final two men I cite today were both U.S. Navy officers — World War II fighter ace Alex Vraciu and Joseph Langdell, the oldest survivor of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Vraciu, who died Feb. 1 in Sacramento at age 96, was nicknamed “The Indestructible” for his numerous exploits during WW II, that included shooting down six Japanese bombers in eight minutes over Japan. In all, he shot down 19 enemy planes, destroyed 21 more on the ground, and after his “Hellcat” fighter was heavily damaged by Japanese aircraft during the Battle of Saipan, parachuted from his plane at a low altitude and joined a band of guerrillas fighting Japanese land forces on Saipan.
Vraciu (his name rhymed with “cashew”) was the fourth-ranked USN ace of the war, won the Navy Cross, and following his retirement as a commander, worked as a university development officer in Northern California.
Langdell died at the age of 100 on Feb. 3 in Yuba City, Calif., where he and his family operated an appliance and furniture store.
A lieutenant assigned to the battleship USS Arizona, he was sleeping in a nearby officer’s facility when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on that terrible Sunday morning in late 1941.
Rushing to the USS Arizona, he arrived in minutes and helped rescue crew members from the ship and water. Later that day, he headed the team that gathered the bodies and body parts of crewmen killed in the attack. Langdell retired from the Navy at war’s end with the rank of lieutenant commander and leaves a son and two grandchildren.
David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus and may be reached at email@example.com.