Apodaca: Living local heroes remember those who didn’t make it

Former Marines Dwight Hanson and Billy Hall.
Former Marines Dwight Hanson and Billy Hall appear at recruiting stations and various events remembering their service and honoring fallen veterans of U.S. wars.
(Dwight Hanson)

In many ways, Billy Hall and Dwight Hanson are very different people.

They are separated in age by more than four decades. Hanson, 54, is a college graduate; Hall, 97, left high school early and years later earned a GED credential. Hanson, a father of three grown children, lives in Irvine with his wife. Hall, whose only surviving relative is a daughter in Arizona, resides in an assisted living facility in Orange. Hanson is passionate; Hall is lighthearted.

But the pair are bound by one essential fact: They are both veterans, proud former Marines — or, as Hanson says, “You’re always a Marine” — who know deep in their bones what it means to put their lives on the line for their country. That bond is immovable, unshakable and serves as impetus for their current mission to share their backgrounds and knowledge with whoever might be interested in listening.

Together they venture around the county and beyond, talking to students and active military members, appearing at recruiting stations and various events, where they discuss their experiences in vivid detail. Hall was part of a group of veterans Hanson organized to travel to Hawaii in 2021 to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Soon they will leave for Normandy, France, to mark the anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

I met up with them recently at Corona del Mar High School, where they and other veterans spoke to students as part of Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s Living History program, which is coordinated with the Freedom Committee of Orange County.

And what a history they have.

Billy Hall at Guadalcanal, circa age 16, during World War II.
(Courtesy of Billy Hall)

Hall, as Hanson frequently emphasizes, is believed to be the last living veteran to enlist before World War II and to engage in combat in that war, and in Korea and Vietnam. He enlisted in the Marines when he was just 15½ years old — he didn’t lie about his age, he says with a twinkle in his eyes, the recruitment officer did — and by age 16 he was flying on aerial combat missions in the Pacific and took part in the months-long Battle of Guadalcanal, the first major land offensive by Allied forces against Japan.

He tells harrowing stories about the dive bombers on which he served as rear gunner and radio gunner. Those planes would plummet from 10,000 feet in altitude to 500 feet, often upside down, the pilot lapsing in and out of consciousness, while under fire to drop a single bomb.

Hall participated in more than 150 missions; later he returned stateside, and after a short stint in civilian life he joined the Army National Guard and learned to fly planes and helicopters. He retired from the military in 1967.

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Still active and mentally sharp — he works out regularly and takes walks to the local mall — Hall regaled the students with as many tales as he could fit in during his allotted time. He told them about a training exercise in Alaska when a bear chased a pilot atop his helicopter, and of the hair-raising, tightly orchestrated drop-offs of troops into combat zones in Vietnam.

Many times he cheated death. He recounted one such time when he realized that the gas tank on the dive bomber on which he was flying had been hit and he braced for an explosion. But the round that hit turned out to be a rare dud, and after an emergency refueling, the plane made it safely back to base.

Hanson, who served as a rifleman and aviation electrician in the Persian Gulf War, calls Hall “a living legend.” Hall says of Hanson, “I like him. We think like each other.”

But in one respect, their thinking subtly diverges.

With Memorial Day approaching, I asked the pair to share their thoughts about those who didn’t make it back. The holiday, after all, is intended to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice while defending their country.

After serving in three wars, Hall said he doesn’t dwell on those who died, preferring to think of them as having transferred or just gone away somewhere.

Billy Hall and Dwight Hanson share veteran stories with students.
Billy Hall, yellow shirt, and Dwight Hanson, in red, share veteran stories with students at Corona del Mar High School.
(Denise Weiland)

Hanson, however, is dedicated to honoring the fallen and keeping memories of them alive. He mentioned a Marine named Kevin Balduf, a father of two young children from Tennessee who served in Afghanistan and helped rescue other Marines and Afghanis only to be felled by an insurgent’s bullet. He stops by Balduf’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery whenever he’s there to visit his father’s grave.

He also told me of another Marine, Abraham Simpson, a one-time Eagle Scout from Chino, Calif., who was just 19 when he died in Iraq in 2004. His mother speaks frequently to troops.

“There’s still young men and women willing to stand in the gap, willing to give their lives,” he said.

It’s easy to be cynical in these divisive times. Distrust of institutions, and each other, runs high. Perhaps on Memorial Day we’d prefer to shop the sales, grill burgers and abstain from the holiday’s true intent.

But it would be fitting and right if we all took a moment to remember that our military is comprised of individuals who vow to put everything on the line. Many, like Hall and Hanson, make it back. Some do not, and they should never be forgotten.