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Veterans share experiences with students at Walnut High

http://www.sgvtribune.com/social-affairs/20141103/veterans-share-experiences-with-students-at-walnut-high

San Gabriel Valley Tribune
November 4, 2014
By Richard Irwin

Veterans share experiences with students at Walnut High

Rear Admiral Gordon Smith remembers being “keelhauled” in the Navy. Smith was taking off from an aircraft carrier, when the catapult misfired. His plane was thrown off the front of the steaming carrier, which ran over the unlucky pilot.

“Fortunately, the canopy on my plane was open, but I was sucked under the carrier for a couple minutes,” the aviator told students at Walnut High School.

The intrepid naval flyer says “you have to get back in the saddle whenever you’re thrown.” He flew from the same catapult the next day.

“I had to get my confidence back,” the rear admiral said. “I’ll tell you this, the pilots with the most confidence have the best survival rate.”

Smith gained a lot of confidence over the next 34 years, recording 6,482 flight hours in aircraft ranging from the famous World War II Corsair fighter to modern jets. And he made 708 landings on heaving carriers.

He was one of the veterans who took time Monday to talk to 650 social science students at Walnut High.

“We wanted to give the veterans a chance to share their stories of courage, honor, patriotism and sacrifice with our students,” said teacher Brett Landis.

Later, Smith told the students about being shot down. His Skyraider was hit in the belly and caught fire.

“The 500 gallons of fuel in my plane became a blowtorch,” he said. “I had a hard time climbing out, then hit the tail of the plane when I bailed out.”

Rescue crews found Smith with a badly injured back and leg as well as burns over 80 percent of his body. But Smith would “get back in the saddle again,” becoming an expert in search and rescue in Southeast Asia.

He was the on scene commander for 23 rescue attempts over North Vietnam, ending in 11 successful extractions. This included a successful night rescue only 17 miles from heavily defended Hanoi.

By the end of a long naval career, Smith had received Silver and Bronze Stars, Navy Medal for Heroism, four Distinguished Flying Crosses, 23 Air Medals and a Purple Heart.

Buford Johnson talked about his experience with the famous Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. Drafted by the Navy, Johnson learned that African Americans were assigned menial labor. But if he volunteered for three years, he could enlist in the Army Air Force.

Johnson became one of the first African Americans to work on fighter aircraft. The Red Tails earned an impressive combat record over Europe.

Later, Master Sgt. Johnson became the first African-American jet mechanic in the U.S. Air Force, working in the Korean Conflict.

The Navy sent several recruiters, including Petty Officer Colette Javner from the Puente Hills Mall office.

“My grandpa and dad were in the Navy, so I decide to join after high school in Minnesota,” Javner said. “Our basic training at Great Lakes is coed because men and women have to serve together on ships.”

She said women made up half the crew on her first ship. The 26-year-old told the young women clustered around her that she’s traveled all around the world on destroyers.

“I’m in charge of millions dollars of equipment,” the weapons specialist explained. “I’m the fastest in the Navy, getting off a torpedo in 7 seconds.”

Marine Staff Sgt. Thomas Praxedes grew up in Covina. The infantryman fought during two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.

“I enlisted after the attacks on Sept. 11. I was only 17, so my mother had to sign the papers for me,” Praxedes explained.

He has been wounded by shrapnel in the leg. Praxedes also got a concussion when another marine stepped on a land mine.

“One lost his leg and another died in the explosion,” Praxedes said.

Army Sgt. Augustine Ramirez is also from Covina. He served with Army aviation in Korea before returning to become a recruiter in Industry.

“My combat experience includes two 15-month tours in Iraq,” Ramirez said. “An IED blew up near my armored humvee and flipped it over. Fortunately, I had my helmet and four-point harness on in the passenger seat.”

Sophomores Gabriel Corona and Shane Rutland, both 15, were both impressed so much by the veterans that they stayed to talk with them during their lunch period.

“I’ve learned a lot from them. I’m glad they came to our school to share their experiences,” Corona said.

Shown:
Navy rear admiral Gordon Smith and Navy pilot, retired, speaks to Walnut High students during the Lessons of Liberty event sponsored by the Armed Services Assistance Club at Walnut campus Nov. 3, 2014. (Photo by Leo Jarzomb/San Gabriel Valley Tribune)

U.S. Army sergeant Thomas Praxedes of Covina speaks to Walnut High students during the Lessons of Liberty event sponsored by the Armed Services Assistance Club at Walnut campus Nov. 3, 2014. (Photo by Leo Jarzomb/San Gabriel Valley Tribune)

Walnut High students meet veterans from Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm during the Lessons of Liberty event sponsored by the Armed Services Assistance Club at Walnut campus Nov. 3, 2014. (Photo by Leo Jarzomb/San Gabriel Valley Tribune)

U.S. Navy petty officer Colette Javner speaks to Walnut High students during the Lessons of Liberty event sponsored by the Armed Services Assistance Club at Walnut campus Nov. 3, 2014. (Photo by Leo Jarzomb/San Gabriel Valley Tribune)

U.S. Army staff sergeant Christopher Hellesvig speaks to Walnut High students during the Lessons of Liberty event sponsored by the Armed Services Assistance Club at Walnut campus Nov. 3, 2014. (Photo by Leo Jarzomb/San Gabriel Valley Tribune)

Tuskegee Airman Buford Johnson, 87, speaks to Walnut High students during the Lessons of Liberty event sponsored by the Armed Services Assistance Club at Walnut campus Nov. 3, 2014. (Photo by Leo Jarzomb/San Gabriel Valley Tribune)

U.S. Army sergeant Augustine Ramirez speaks to Walnut High students during the Lessons of Liberty event sponsored by the Armed Services Assistance Club at Walnut campus Nov. 3, 2014. (Photo by Leo Jarzomb/San Gabriel Valley Tribune)