War stories

The day will come, possibly in the next two decades, when the last survivor of the Greatest Generation passes away.

That is the realization that Harvey Shaw lives with every year as he watches the ranks of his fellow World War II veterans deplete.

Shaw, who lives in Newport Beach and served in three wars of the last century, has breakfast every week with a small circle of peers and occasionally visits elementary schools to talk about his experiences.

He asks the students if they want to hear about World War II, Korea or Vietnam, and they almost always choose the first one. He’s grateful for that.

“There’s a lot of stories out there that are just going to disappear if someone doesn’t record them,” Shaw, 84, said.

Today, America will observe the 54th Veterans Day since President Dwight Eisenhower proclaimed the holiday in 1954. In honor of the holiday, the Daily Pilot interviewed five local residents who served in wars over the last century.

Harvey Shaw — World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War

Shaw has two prized mementos of World War II in his home in Santa Ana Heights.

One is the front page of a Laguna Beach community newspaper that printed his picture during the war, along with a story about how Shaw barely survived after his plane was shot down over Germany.

Shaw, a young gunner, had his wing damaged by ground fire, and the plane above his snapped a photo as he went down.

The Laguna Beach native never forgot the day his family wrote to tell him about his hometown fame — and the caption that read, “Brushes Death Over Nazi Target.”

“That picture was on the front page on the newspaper stand at the drugstore,” Shaw said. “My sister worked for an accountant downtown, and she had to go from one customer to another, and she stopped by and she saw that picture. The first thing she saw was ‘Death’ in the headline, and it scared the wits out of her.”

The second memento is the leather flight jacket that Shaw is wearing in the newspaper photo — and which he went on to take with him to Korea and Vietnam.

The jacket has faded and cracked with age, but it still shows Shaw’s wartime nickname, Asbury, lettered on the front, as well as the painting of a seductive blond woman that he did on the back.

The Smithsonian Institution, Shaw said, has expressed interest in displaying the jacket.

He’s not ready to turn it in yet. Every time he reunites with his fellow veterans for their weekly breakfast at Coco’s, he feels proud to be a part of history.

“We’re just celebrating the fact that we’re still around,” he said.

Scotty McLeish — Korean War

The fifth child out of nine, it is hard to believe Scotty McLeish, 75, ever felt alone. Yet there were times when he served in the Navy during Korea when he felt lonely.

“We were like a bunch of gypsies, we didn’t belong anywhere,” McLeish said. “We felt like orphans.”

McLeish was an aircraft mechanic during the war and served on various ships during his four years of duty.

He sailed around the world on three separate cruises from 1951 to 1955, the highlight of which was aboard the USS Wasp, which was the naval carrier that launched the last mission before a cease-fire was ordered.

McLeish enlisted with the Navy so he could choose which branch he served in before the draft board did. He requested to be stationed in the Great Lakes, near his Clinton, Ind. home, but instead he was shipped to San Diego.

Fortunately, a buddy who had done the same thing was also shipped to the Southern California base.

McLeish was part of a line of family members who served their country.

His father was an electrician during World War II after coal mining for 42 years.

His oldest brother, who was an air core gunner on a B-24 Liberator, was killed in action over Austria in WWII. Another brother was a merchant marine, and McLeish found himself helping airmen fly in Korea.

He remembers planes coming in too fast or too high, “bouncing banshees” he remembers them as, hitting the flight deck too hard and missing the tail hook, sailing over the barrier. One particular plane crashed into parked planes on which McLeish happened to be working.

He sprung from his spot into a catwalk and was the first on the scene to douse the fire.

McLeish, who is retired, lives in Bethel Towers in Costa Mesa.

Bob Cunningham — Korean War and Vietnam War

When Bob Cunningham first enlisted in the military, it was a spur-of-the-moment decision. He and four friends had gotten bored with their studies at the University of Colorado and went off to join the Marines together in January 1950.

It didn’t take long for Cunningham to realize what he had gotten into.

His first battle in Korea was the invasion of Inchon in September 1950, one of the most famous battles of the 20th century, when the United Nations recaptured Seoul from North Korean forces.

Cunningham went on to suffer multiple combat wounds before returning home in 1953.

“It’s the shocking reality that this is for real,” said Cunningham, 77, who works as assistant head of security at the Balboa Bay Club and Resort.

Cunningham, though, could more than stomach the reality. After coming back to the United States, he enlisted in flight school and served in line squadrons at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

After training pilots in India and flying planes in Taiwan, he went on to serve four combat tours in Vietnam.

Cunningham is the only survivor among the group who went with him to enlist in 1950.

Two of his friends died in Korea; the other two passed away at home. Some of his memories are painful, he said, but he has learned to put them in perspective.

“What I wish the media could understand is that we’re not all disturbed veterans,” he said. “We went over there and did a job. It was the path we chose. And most of us came back with our heads screwed on.”

Rodolfo J. ValenzuelaKosovo and Iraq War

On patrol, walking the streets of Baghdad, decked out in full battle gear and uniform, Sgt. Rodolfo J. Valenzuela felt a yank on his sleeve.

“Thank you,” were the words he heard from a local schoolboy in Baghdad who had just left class and stopped to thank the soldier.

It is the pride those experiences elicited that inspired Valenzuela, 33, to make the service his career. He is a 10-year veteran and has spent most of that time fixing AH-64 Apache helicopters. He grew up in Santa Ana and attended Saddleback High School.

Now he works at a Costa Mesa recruiting office. Valenzuela received a quality education courtesy of Uncle Sam, but he was also able to be part of humanitarian efforts in Iraq and Kosovo.

Valenzuela went into Kosovo in 2000 and helped restore running water while keeping families safe during the tumultuous conflict.

During his first deployment in Iraq, Valenzuela; along with the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment, Fourth Squadron, did some of the same rewarding work for 13 months building hospitals, schools, and getting water and electricity flowing in neighborhoods that previously lacked the utilities. He’s pleased that he could help, but he notes the service offers other rewards.

“I have stories to tell my great-grandkids of the friends and unions I made,” Valenzuela said. “People at home don’t see that bond you develop. Being away from family, (your) friends in the Army are your brothers and sisters.”

Valenzuela has been married for 12 years to his wife, Dee, and has a 12-year-old daughter.

Frank Miezwa — Desert Storm

“Scud alert, scud alert, scud alert,” Sgt. Frank Miezwa would say as he cranked the radio to pass the message.

During Desert Storm, Miezwa, 53, was a satellite radio operator, often spending his time listening to radio traffic and chatter between pilots, but when trouble might be on the way, Miezwa was the one with the warning.

“People would go to a designated air-raid shelter, the sirens would sound — it was just like in the movies,” Miezwa said.

Soldiers crowded together, dashing to put on chemical gear in case an attack was made.

For Miezwa and the soldiers with him, they remained safe throughout the war. But what he remembers is how it began.

While they had been shipped to Tabuk, Saudi Arabia, the soldiers still didn’t know whether they were going to war. Miezwa found out suddenly, and early.

“After my shift ended, the pilots asked me to hang around and drive them to the flight line,” Miezwa said. “I heard them say, ‘Baghdad’ and thought, ‘This is really happening.’”

Miezwa was already a career soldier within the Air National Guard. He joined when he was 29 in 1983.

He recalls replacing the vacuum tubes of old radios and then the transition to digital equipment. Both provided him with new challenges, the reason he joined the military.

He is now married to his wife, Laura, and works out of the Air National Guard base in Costa Mesa.

TIMELINE OF THE IRAQ WAR

March 2003: U.S. forces invade Iraq

May 2003: President Bush declares end of major combat operations in “Mission Accomplished” speech

December 2003: Saddam Hussein captured by U.S. forces

April 2004: U.S. soldiers accused of abusing prisoners in Abu Ghraib scandal

January 2005: Iraqis elect transitional government

May 2006: Permanent Iraqi government takes power

June 2006: Insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi killed by U.S. forces

December 2006: Hussein executed

January 2007: Bush announces troop “surge” to quell violence throughout country

September 2007: Bush and Gen. David Petraeus back limited withdrawal of troops


MICHAEL MILLER may be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at michael.miller@latimes.com. DANIEL TEDFORD may be reached at (714) 966-4632 or at daniel.tedford@latimes.com.

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