Local Veterans’ Group Swaps Stories

Every Nov. 11 for the past several decades, the United States pauses to salute those who have served in the country’s armed forces. The date was chosen to honor the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 — when the armistice with Germany went into effect, effectively ending World War I.
This year, Veterans Day offered a unique opportunity for San Marino’s former service members as the recently established San Marino Veterans Group came together for a morning of storytelling and remembrance. Held in the San Marino Center, the event’s main goal was aimed at giving veterans in the community a platform to share personal experiences and make acquaintances.
“What I find in these kinds of meetings is that people are very, very glad to have served the country,” said Robert Almanza, who served in the Army from 1956-58 and in the Army Reserve for an additional six years. “I have not heard anyone say ‘I hated the service’ even though it was dangerous for many and they saw mates being killed. They still talk well about their service. That’s the most important thing. In my case, I served in peacetime so it was more like a vacation. But I know that many of these people were under fire. Yet they are happy to talk about their experience in a favorable way.”
Almanza was one of 18 veterans in attendance at the meeting, which was the most recent gathering of the San Marino Veterans Group — a new nonprofit that typically meets on the second Wednesday of each month in the Crowell Public Library’s Barth Community Room. The organization’s founder, Iraq War veteran Lawrence Fu, was unable to attend the event because of conflicts in his travel schedule.
The meeting unfolded as veterans passed a microphone around the room, most standing proudly to address the small crowd. Some recounted humorous experiences, others detailed their military backgrounds and those who could not talk because of medical issues employed a family member to speak on their behalf.
“I enjoy visiting and hearing their stories,” said Gene Ruckh, a longtime San Marino resident who served active duty in the Army from 1952-55. “We haven’t had much veteran activity around here in the past except for Fourth of July at Lacy Park. We speak and tell people about our experiences, but other than that, there’s not much. … So, we’d all go our separate ways until we see ourselves meeting at occasions like this.”
Earle Jager served in the Navy Reserve from 1945-46, just after the conclusion of World War II.
“It was a very fortunate experience that I didn’t hear a shot fired in anger,” said Jager. “Out of it, I got my G.I. benefits and went to college. I’m always grateful for our great country.”
As an Air Force crew member stationed in Great Falls, Mont., from 1952-56, Bill Chun-Hoon helped fly supplies to Washington and Alaska’s Aleutian Islands to assist with the Korean War effort. He, too, received G.I. benefits following his discharge and went on to become a school principal.
Dave Bryan and Charles Patterson were both Air Force physicians during the Vietnam War.
“I had pretty safe duty to speak of, but I had a great time,” said Bryan, who brushed elbows with powerful B-52 bomber jets while stationed at the U-Tapao Airfield in Thailand. “Two years I’d never trade for anything, but two years I don’t think I’d go back and do.”
Patterson was a military psychiatrist and, like Chun-Hoon, was stationed in Great Falls. The son and nephew of World War II veterans, Patterson shared a story about the time he almost had to negotiate with a commercial airplane hijacker flying in from Seattle. The plane ultimately landed safely at a different airport.
Veteran Richard Berklite never experienced that same level of action, partly because he did not serve during wartime. Following the meeting, Berklite admitted that he “always feels kind of inferior because most of the guys really were in combat.” This sentiment, though, is nonsense, according to Marine Sgt. Joseph Wong.
“Freedom is not free,” said the Korean War veteran, urging his peers to spread the word about the San Marino Veterans Group. “We should have a lot more veterans here. I think many of the veterans do not show up because they think because they didn’t serve in a fighting area, they weren’t true veterans. … Anyone who put a uniform on could have died. If we didn’t, we’re lucky enough to be back here. But we all did our part.”

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