Kids Meet Some Real Heroes

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From left, Jack Hammett, Walter Drake, Don Christeson and Beate Wilder-Smith. Photo by Cindy Christeson

If one could bottle the love of country that pulsed through Mariners Christian School for the Veterans Day Service last Friday, the fragrance of patriotism could cover our country from sea to shining sea.

Two friendly young students dressed in boy-scout uniforms escorted me into the breakfast. They said they were excited to meet real life heroes; I told them I was, too.

The room was filled with heroes; almost 100 of them joined other MCS grandparents at tables around the room, sharing breakfast and stories of their service. Included in the room were POW veterans, a Navy Cross recipient, two Pearl Harbor veterans, and members from every branch of the service.

Veterans passed the microphone and briefly recalled their rank and role while in uniform. Whether delivering supplies or dropping bombs, each played an important part in securing the freedoms we enjoy today.

After breakfast, the guests joined the student body in the gymnasium for the program, which included recognition of veterans, Posting the Colors, patriotic songs, and the chance to hear first-hand from four different war heroes.

“Today is one of the most important and significant days of the year,” said Bob Sladek, head of MCS. “We are blessed to be here, where freedom reigns and where God’s hand is upon us. Freedom is one of the most precious gifts we will ever know, but freedom is not free. We believe patriotism still matters and deserves to be honored and one of our desires for our children is that they would honor God with their lives, their gratitude and their character.”

Todd Perkins, Director of Operations for MCS, moderated the panel of four heroes from WWll, who shared stories about serving their country by land, air and sea. There was reverent respect throughout the room when history truly came alive as each one spoke.

First to speak was Jack Hammett, a 91 year-old Pearl Harbor survivor and former mayor of Costa Mesa. He was a Navy corpsman and served with Marine Corps combat units. He participated in the D-Day operations, was involved in the North Africa campaign, Atlantic anti-submarine action and served during the Korean War. He wore the nationally-accepted Pearl Harbor Survivor’s uniform as he shared his stories and explained that he is one of only 3,300 remaining survivors out of the 84,000 present that fateful day so long ago.

Next to share was Walter Drake, a veteran U.S. Army Air Force pilot who received the Distinguished Flying Cross and nine Oak Leaf Clusters. He was part of the 434th Fighter Squadron activated in October 1943, and flew cover for Allied troops during the D-Day invasion of Normandy along the English Channel coast of Northern France. He flew 68 missions. Besides being shot at by Germans, challenges included flying at 32,000 feet where it was 65 degrees below zero, with no heaters, which necessitated wearing four sets of gloves.

Don Christeson then spoke about joining the Navy soon after his 18th birthday and beginning his boot camp experience during a snowstorm in Farragut, Idaho. He was assigned to the USS Wickes where he served as a gunner’s mate on an anti-aircraft gun. They fought in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which involved 286 ships and has been regarded as the largest naval battle in history, decimating the Japanese carrier fleet. The Wickes also provided support for the landings at New Guinea, Bougainville, Luzon and Okinawa where they received minor damage after being hit by a Japanese bomb.

Sixth grader Kirsten Allmeroth introduced Beate Wilder-Smith, the final speaker of the panel.

“My grandmother was born in Germany and started working for Hitler at the age of 10 because she had to,” Kirsten said. “Her stories help me appreciate how blessed we are to live in freedom. She is a God-loving, fun person to be with and I’m blessed to have her as my grandmother.”

The audience was spell bound as Beate calmly recalled the challenges she and her family faced and endured.

“We lived a very happy life, my father was a pastor, our house was full of laughter and fun and guests,” Beate began. “This happy state didn’t last long and times worsened. When Hitler came to power, it seemed good for a time, nobody asked what was the price to pay, but soon he started the rule of terror.”

Her stories included several instances where she and her family prayed when it seemed imminent that her father was about to be killed for being a pastor, and God miraculously spared him.

“God really answered our prayers and looked after us,” she said.

Cindy can be reached at [email protected].

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