Shortly before his arrival in Guadalcanal as a 17-year-old poised for war, the battle for a small jungle-entangled Pacific island endured some of the fiercest fighting during the first year of World War II. Both Marines and soldiers repelled a six-month Japanese assault on the small 90-mile long island in the Solomon chain, while aviation assets and naval resources aided in the battle.
Newly-minted naval aviator Gerald Edson, who has lived in Sacramento for most of his life, arrived on the island after completing boot camp and flight training, a teenager determined to fight for his country against the Japanese. Upon his arrival on Guadalcanal, Edson became the newest member of a submarine patrol squadron that kept a watchful eye on enemy activity in the southwestern Pacific.
“We had nine airplanes and 11 pilots,” Edson recalled. “We would fly over the ocean looking for convoys and submarines.”
Edson, who served in the Navy from 1942 to 1944, said he doesn’t remember seeing any enemy ships during reconnaissance flights from his perilous perch, that of a rear gunner on a Douglas SBD dive bomber. Each mission tested the crew’s skill to avoid enemy fire from the rear, which had inadequate protection for the rear gunner. Edson felt the chances of surviving, though, were better than having boots on the ground when he first enlisted.
“I had a draft number of 32,” Edson explained. “I decided to enlist so I didn’t have to sleep on the ground.”
The 97-year-old Edson known as “Big Jerry” has spurred a tree of family members who believe strongly in public service and the military. Coinciding with his recent trip on an Honor Flight Nevada to Washington, D.C., to see memorials built in honor of the fighting men and women, Edson, who spent 45 years in the air conditioning business in Sacramento, beamed with pride when talking about his family.
Jerry Edson, who served a little more than two decades in the Navy, accompanied his father to the nation’s capital, and the day after they returned to Reno, his grandson retired as the Sparks police of chief, and his son — Edson’s great-grandson — graduated from the Northern Nevada Law Enforcement Academy and will now serve in the Sparks Police Department. Outgoing police chief Brian Allen timed his retirement knowing his son would follow in his footsteps.
“Honor Flight is an amazing program for our veterans,” said Allen, who finished a 28-year career with Sparks. “My uncle and grandfather have a bond of service, a father-son bond.”
Jerry Edson, who lives a short distance from Sacramento in Lincoln, followed in his father’s footsteps, having completed three tours aboard ships along the Vietnam coast. Edson, who worked as a financial planner and sold life insurance, can rattle off his entire career: 20 years, two months, 29 days. He retired more than 30 years ago.
“We provided gunfire support to the forces in Vietnam,” the retired chief petty officer said. “Often times we would fire several thousand rounds a day for different operations.”
Sometimes, the mission would take the ship closer to the coast for nighttime operations focusing on targets. Jerry Edson recounted a reconnaissance mission on the islands of Haiphong Harbor when the ship’s crew could see the muzzle flashes from the North Vietnamese guns on shore.
“And here I am watching their projectiles fly over our ship and fly into the water on the other side,” said the career sailor, who ensured the ammunition was available, and the sailors didn’t run short.
Honor Flight provided more than 40 veterans and their guardians an opportunity during their four days to see the World War II, Korean and Vietnam memorials, the U.S. Navy Museum, the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial that is represented by the raising of the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima, Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the National Holocaust Museum. The veterans also met former Republican Sen. Robert Dole, who served in the U.S. Army during World War II, and was severely wounded twice.
The elder Edson grew emotional when reflecting on the trip, wiping away tears.
“Unbelievable,” he said, pausing, trying to describe the whirlwind trip. “The people are family — the time we served was to be there for each other.”
Edson said he was impressed with the U.S. Navy Museum at the Washington Navy Yard. Exhibits included maps of the Navy’s battles in the Pacific including Guadalcanal. Edson and the other veterans on the flight had front-row seats at Marine Barracks Washington to watch “The Commandant’s Own,” The United States Marine Drum & Bugle Corps and silent drill team.
Jerry Edson said the unexpected welcome by military personnel and civilians at the Baltimore/Washington International Airport left him speechless. He said the reception with sideboys given to a retired Navy chief humbled him.
“Fellow sailors were honoring me,” he said. “Captains, commanders and master chiefs...”
Jerry Edson said visiting the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial, better known as the Iwo Jima memorial, also left him emotional.
“The Marines in the group began to sing the Marine hymn, and then everybody in the group — Air Force, Army, Navy and guardians – began to sing along with them. It’s something I can’t even describe.”
FROM RADAR TO PSYCHOLOGY
Visiting the Vietnam Wall for Randall (Randy) Wolter gave him another opportunity to pay respects to his brother, who was killed in a war 9,000 miles from home. Wolter accompanied his 93-year-old father Roy, a World War II veteran who served in the Army Air Corps.
“My brother never came back,” Randy said.
Wolter, who now lives in Vallejo, said he and his father, a longtime resident of Sacramento, also reflected on the holocaust museum and the World War II memorial.
“We were looking at the plaques and timeframes when things were occurring. He (dad) was in high school at the time,” Randy pointed out.
Yet, it was the Navy museum where Randy walked away with a better appreciation of what his father encountered in the Pacific Theater from 1943-1945.
“I started relating to and identifying with him,” he said.
As with the Edsons, a map of the South Pacific islands and the significance of specific battles piqued Roy Wolter’s curiosity. There he saw the map of the Pacific extending from the Philippines to smaller islands eastward. Randy said the maps touched his father, who enlisted when he was 17 years old, barely out of high school.
“Originally, when I enlisted, I wanted to be a pilot,” Roy Wolter said. But a small stutter washed him out from pilot training. “They put me in radar, and at that time it was top secret.”
The Navy assigned the Hull, Iowa, native to Palau, an archipelago of more than 500 islands 900 miles southeast of the Philippines. Bombers staged missions from Palua to make bombing runs on the Philippines, trying to wrestle it away from Japanese control.
“We were trying to take back the Philippines for (Gen. Douglas) MacArthur. Remember what he said? ‘We shall return,’” Wolter said.
The bombers flying out of Palua also dropped bombs on other Japanese strongholds, and after U.S. soldiers and Marines secured Okinawa, the Army Air Corps began flying missions including bombing runs on southern Japan. Wolter, though, quickly pointed out that the Japanese also bombed the Americans.
Wolter returned stateside after the war, wanting to become a doctor, but he didn’t have the money to follow his dream. Determined but not discouraged, Wolter began his college career with baby steps.
“I went to college in Sioux Falls (South Dakota) by train,” Wolter recollected, explain his first few years of schooling. “Then I had a friend who had a car, and we roomed together at the University of Iowa and came home on holidays.”
Wolter eventually earned a degree in psychology, and with the sheepskin in hand, he moved to California where he earned a master’s degree in psychology from Sacramento State University and then a doctorate in the same subject. Wolter established a private practice in Sacramento, but he also worked for the county’s probation department. When he retired from the county service, Wolter still maintained his private practice.