World War II veteran celebrates his 100th birthday with family, others at Newport Harbor

Barbara Winkler of SoCal Quilts of Valor, left, surprises Joseph King with a quilt  during his 100th birthday party.
Barbara Winkler of SoCal Quilts of Valor, left, surprises Joseph King with a quilt in the USC colors during his 100th birthday party at the American Legion post in Newport Harbor on Saturday. Behind King is his son Doyle who joins in the moment.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Joseph King likes to joke that he’s probably been exposed to more chemicals than any other person would be in his lifetime.

King, a chemical engineer who finally retired from his day job about four years ago at 95, thinks people should not necessarily trust everything that environmentalists say.

He’s been around lead, chromium, asbestos in his profession and used to spray his family’s potato crop with arsenic and white lead.

“I’ve been exposed to a myriad of chemicals that are supposed to have killed anybody and the only thing I can figure is that it killed the bugs,” he said, laughing.

World War II veteran Joseph King, surrounded by extended family, is surprised with a quilt of valor by Barbara Winkler.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

He theorizes it might be why he’ll make it to his 100th birthday on Monday. It also probably helps that he has no vices.

Though he admitted in a recent interview that he did enjoy a cocktail most nights and used to smoke, but quit in 1950. The only pills he takes, he said, are vitamins.

King was born in Michigan on a rural farm in 1921, where he lived up until he was about 8 or 9 and moved with his family to the port city of Muskegon. There, he finished high school, went on to junior college and was working when the attack on Pearl Harbor happened in 1941.

“I decided I needed to get back to college as fast as I could. It changed my life quite a bit during that time,” King said.

King initially started as a pharmacist before shifting gears to chemical engineering while studying at the University of Michigan.

While there he enlisted and was deployed for active duty upon his graduation in 1943. He served on the USS Biddle, an American destroyer ship during World War II. He was responsible for maintenance of the ship’s machinery.

Joseph King, sitting with girlfriend Shirley, pause for group picture with extended family during his 100th birthday party.
Joseph King, sitting with girlfriend Shirley, pause for group picture with extended family during his 100th birthday party.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

King said that while he was serving he never encountered enemy forces, but that the crew came close on one occasion to a German submarine in 1945, just two months before the war ended.

“Our ship was stationed in Narragansett Bay and on a Saturday, I got a visit from our captain. He said, ‘We’ve got to go. A German submarine just sunk a merchant ship off the Cape Cod Canal. We’ve got to go.’

“We rounded up crew from the Coast Guard, went out, patrolled and somebody got the submarine, but we didn’t,” he added. “It was a lot of stuff that went on along the coast with that submarine, which I found out years later. I wasn’t really involved with it… I was kinda chasing it but never really got involved.”

Once the war ended, King returned to finish graduate school at the University of Michigan before moving to Los Angeles in 1948.

His son, Doyle King, said he recalls most of his own childhood as having been a normal one. He recalls that his parents divorced when he was in his teens. His father never remarried, but did meet his current partner, Shirley Johnstone, in the late 1990s.

Joseph King said he met Johnstone while on a trip to Louisville to see the Kentucky Derby. Johnstone was a host for that excursion, which was organized by the University of Southern California.

The two hit it off and have been together ever since, living in both of Johnstone’s homes in Glendale and in Newport Beach throughout the year. The two traveled to Hawaii in April.

Over the last century, King’s watched at least three generations of his family — though, one of his sons, Bruce, died in the late 1970s — grow up and has welcomed in Johnstone’s two daughters and their families too. He hopes that they’ll make it to 100 too.

“My family has always had a pretty long lifespan,” he said.

One of Johnstone’s daughters, Jerrilynn Kline, said King is something of a “yes man.”

“He really is open to everything — doing, going, seeing. He’s a little bit older now, but he has friends from all different walks of life. He’s just always open to go,” said Kline, who lives in Newport Beach.

“He’s traveled all over. He just says yes to things and I think he is always very happy and he doesn’t complain about anything, really.”

“I thought, ‘What do I want to do to be like Joe?’ He has more experiences than most people because he’s not picky,” Kline said.

Kline described King as a meticulous cook that loved to bake pies, make jams and his own tomato sauce from scratch.

Kline’s sister Jacque Ratto said that King and her husband, Anthony Ratto, shared an obsession with puzzles.

Doyle King said he remembers when his father bought him a 1934 Auburn convertible when he turned 16, but that the two had to work on it for nearly 50 years before it could be driven.

Joseph King looks at a 100th birthday card with girlfriend Shirley.
Joseph King looks at a 100th birthday card with girlfriend Shirley.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The celebration Saturday at the American Legion Newport Harbor Post on 15th Street was expected to be a big one, Doyle King said, since his father only celebrates his birthday every five years. “In essence, we’re planning for his 105th,” he joked.

The family assembled all of the senior King’s recipes together in a cookbook for his 95th.

“I’ve lived a good life,” said King, then launched some advice that people stay away from drugs and show respect to the United States. “I would like to pass on whatever I’ve done that’s right to the rest.”

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