Nine veterans from Merced and Stanislaus counties were on the Honor Flight that flew out of Fresno on Tuesday, Sept. 12, to Washington D.C.
In all, there were 67 veterans on the flight from across the Central Valley, representing Army (33), Navy (18), Air Force (8), and Marine Corps (10).
The veterans ranged in age from 67 to 98, with years of service spanning five decades from 1942-2003, and veterans who served in WWII, Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, and even Desert Storm.
No female veterans were on this trip because the Women’s Memorial is currently closed for renovations. It will reopen in time for Flight #23 next month.
Five veterans were from Merced County:
- Miguel Castro, 90, Los Banos (Air Force) – Korean War veteran served 1951-59, translator for Portuguese and Spanish. Spent four years (51-55) at AFB in Biloxi, MS. Earned his U.S. citizenship through USAF service. Made first radio appearance in late 1940s and has been a radio announcer in Portuguese for over 60 years. That work continues at radioportugalusa.com
- Archie Dixon, 70, Catheys Valley (Marine Corps) – Vietnam veteran served 1969-73 crew chief/mechanic & door gunner on CH-46 helicopters in HMM-262. Helped evacuated wounded. Archie and wife of 34 years, Linda, raised nine children, and have fostered 132 more. Retired from managing forklift dealership.
- Eugene “Bud” Gantney, 76, Merced (Army) – son of WWII veteran & career Air Force officer, Bud lived in Africa, France, & England before moving to Merced at age 13. Credited with 36 years of military service, starting in 1969 when he was drafted. He is bringing photos on the trip from his days in Vietnam with Co. C, 46th Battalion, 196th Light Infantry Brigade. He survived deadliest attack on a U.S. firebase during the Vietnam War on March 28, 1971. Thirty-three men were killed, with 83 more wounded during the siege of FSB Mary Ann. Bud Gantney survived, and has a unique story of what saved his life. He came home from Vietnam to San Francisco in his new uniform, only to be spat upon. National Guard & Army Reserve service followed, and he led Task Force 184 in Korea in 1986, commanded 880 men & 350 trucks during the Rodney King riots later. He continues to run Johnson Industrial Plumbing, which has done work in Yosemite National Park & at Fresno State & UC Merced among others. Alsp he plans to trace the names of six men from Merced on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. For last ten years, has coordinated Merced’s “Fields of Honor,” placing hundreds of flags at Merced College.
- Fidel Garcia, 72, Merced (Navy) – Joined Navy at 18 after graduating from Merced High School. He had to cut the long hair he employed as guitarist in rock band The Soul Flames, which often played at Merced American Legion Hall. He saw The Doors & Santana perform there. He had two deployments to Vietnam on guided missile cruiser USS Long Beach (CGN-9), repairing equipment below decks. During GQ, had to monitor AC system to lock down in case of biological attack. He had to help recover bodies after a mishap in which an Australian carrier collided with an American destroyer. When he was coming back to the U.S. in 1972, he was at an air base in Saigon waiting to fly home and they were nearly hit by North Vietnamese bombs. Fidel says he “shook for a year” when he got home (PTSD). He spent 20 years with Merced County Sheriff’s Dept. as one of first Hispanic deputies. He is still active as a private investigator. Fidel is inspired by granddaughter Alannah, who battles lupus and sells her homemade jewelry on instagram and facebook under “dont.give.up.now_looms.”
- Norman Wyckoff, 74, Merced (Navy) – Norman wouldn’t be here if his father, a tail gunner in a WWII bomber crew, had not been the sole survivor of his plane being shot down in Europe. Norm served 1967-70 in “Brown Water Navy” in Mekong River Delta. Coordinated helicopter landings, sometimes under hostile conditions. After the Navy, he went into the restaurant business, spending 18 years with Waffle House all over the USA, including enduring Hurricane Katrina. In 2000, he was given five to six years to live because of a degenerative muscle disease. He’s still going strong!
Four veterans were from Stanislaus County:
- Joe Auria, 90, Newman (Air Force) – Korean War veteran who served 1952-56, went through pilot training, and was flying P-51 Mustangs when he had a close call because the trim tabs were set wrong. He stopped flying and became a mechanic on B-47 Stratojets, and was eventually sent to England during the Cold War. Joe later owned & operated a rubber stamp company in the East Bay. Hehas lived in Newman since 2001.
- Sheldon Crow, Jr., 90, Newman (Army/Air Force) – Korean War veteran who served 1952-54, including 15 months in Korea as a motor pool mechanic. Six months after the armistice, he endured a close call on 1/19/1954. During an exchange of prisoners of war, enemy forces launched five enemy shells. He was pulling a trailer down a switchback in a jeep, and the explosion caused a 70-pound boulder to land in his passenger seat. If it had landed in driver’s seat, he wouldn’t be here. Sheldon also served in Air Force from 1957-61 as a radar mechanic for F-101 Voodoo jet fighters at Hamilton Field in Marin County. He spent 40 years as a truck driver. Sheldon’s great-great grandfather John Crow founded Crow’s Landing, which was home to an auxiliary Navy airfield during World War II. Sheldon remembers drag racing cars on that airstrip in his younger days.
- Don Paukert, 86, Modesto (Marine Corps) – Korean War veteran who served 1953-58, including in Korea with H&S Co. 1st battalion, 11th Marines, 1st Marine Division (and still has his uniform to prove it!) Was very close to 38th Parallel, base camp near Freedom Bridge. Like many Korean War vets, Don takes pride in nighttime aerial photos of Korean Peninsula, which show the lights of South Korea, which has thrived thanks to U.S. & U.N. troops keeping it free, in contrast to the dark view of North Korea, which has suffered under totalitarian control.
- Gil Prendez, 67, Denair (Marine Corps) – Aviation maintenance, and tech. He served 1972-76.
After this flight, the generous people of the Valley will have made it possible for the all-volunteer Honor Flight organization to have taken 1,465 veterans to their memorials for free, since its founding in 2013.