"I can remember the first time I saw a soldier with a rifle and cartridge belt," Monson recalled over coffee last Friday. "It was the old San Francisco Airport, the old stucco building, and I wandered upstairs to the mezzanine. It was in '42-'43." The soldier was patrolling the airport.
Monson also said that a plane crashed into a hill by his school in Daly City and the students were assembled.
"They told us to be careful playing," he said. "They held up some ammunition and said if we see something like this we should tell someone - don't play with it."
Monson grew up and joined the Marine Corps and now is one of a dozen or so veterans who meet for breakfast at Country Waffles in Danville at 10 a.m. each weekday morning. I joined them Friday in anticipation of Veterans Day.
Russell Gorman, Rear Admiral, U.S. Navy (Ret), also remembered VJ (Victory over Japan) Day, Aug. 15, 1945. It came only two days after he was commissioned.
On that same day John Goerl, now 85 and a resident of Alamo, was in the Philippines in the Army 24th Infantry Division. He had been released from the hospital at Lehte and was on his way to Mindanao late at night, on an LSI (Landing Ship Infantry) quietly maneuvering through the dark and silent Lehte Gulf.
"We were on our way when someone says, 'The Emperor is capitulating,'" Goerl recalled. "The captain let us listen to the Emperor on the radio. I thought we were alone, but after the speech, ships all around us starting setting off flare rockets - it was like the Fourth of July."
The five veterans around the table all recalled the blackouts that were standard during World War II in California as everyone expected a Japanese attack.
"After the war, it was difficult to get used to the light," said Monson. "You automatically wanted to turn the light out."
Locally, the beacon on Mount Diablo was extinguished the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, after it had shone for airplanes since its installation in 1928 by Standard Oil Co. The mountaintop light was part of a system of beacons that began in San Diego to guide airplane flying up and down the length of the state, said Monson.
"(Charles) Lindbergh turned the light on," he said. "And that night, Dec. 7, 1941, they turned the light off - they didn't want an attack by the Japanese."
By the end of the war, aircraft had other means of navigation so the beacon was not relit. But in 1963, said Monson, the Pearl Harbor Survivors had the light repaired and turned it on again Dec. 7 to commemorate the infamous bombing and the entry of the United States into World War II. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz came from his home on Yerba Buena Island to flick the switch.
"There were 140 original members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors but there are now 11," Monson said about the local organization. "Three have passed away recently. The youngest are in their 80s." Now the sons, daughters and friends of the survivors attend the ceremony.
Mac McCuskey fought with the 7th Marine Division in Korea. "It was a tough outfit," he noted. McCuskey is former commander of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 75 and has been busy with current VFW Commander Tony Carnemolla assembling war memorabilia for the exhibit at the Veterans Memorial Building, 400 Hartz Ave. McCuskey said they have use of a Vietnam War helicopter but aren't sure where they can display it. This year the military exhibit will be open from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday, Nov. 11. A Veterans Day Ceremony will be held at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday at San Ramon Valley High School.
Also at the table was Herb Johnson, who served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II. He was in Europe when the war there ended but was reluctant to share a story about something that happened in Germany which the other men seemed to know. Although they were very hospitable to me, I have a feeling their best stories come out when I'm not there. And why not? They share a veterans' bond.
-Dolores Fox Ciardelli can be e-mailed at editor@DanvilleWeekly.com.