VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --
Vandenberg is set to help fulfill a promise more than 70 years in the making, here, April 7.
Team Vandenberg will facilitate a toast performed by WWII combat aviators, and retired Air Force officers, Maj. M. Eugene Johns, who also goes by the name Gene, and Col. Ralph Jenkins -- both former members of the 510th Fighter Squadron. Personnel with the 510th FS made a pact that the last two surviving members of the unit, who flew combat missions during WWII, would make a toast from two bottles of brandy that have also survived the test of decades. With family members of the fallen aviators determined to make this promise happen, Air Force senior officers became involved and determined that McChord Field, near Seattle Washington and Vandenberg Air Force Base, were the two Air Force installations near Jenkins’ and Johns’ current residence. Johns, who currently lives in the city of Lompoc, 10 minutes from Vandenberg, and Jenkins who lives near Seattle, will perform the toast over Facetime – with Johns inside Vandenberg’s Pacific Coast Club.
Gladly accepting the challenge, Capt. Adam Jodice, 14th Air Force A3 staff, chief of special missions, was tasked with overseeing the logistics of the event.
“One of the nephews of a deceased member of the 510th FS is a Marine Corps colonel,” said Jodice. “He reached out to members of the Air Force that he knew and from there, different Air Force senior officers looked into which bases were located near the remaining two members. So, eventually they contacted Lt. Gen. David Buck, the commander of the 14th Air Force, who then assigned me as the action officer to see the plan through.”
In addition to the toast, members of Team Vandenberg will be present to pay tribute to two men who blazed a trail for the Air Force they know today.
“It is extremely humbling and is a tremendous honor to make this happen,” said Jodice. “When you look at the heritage of the Army Air Corps in World War II and then where we are today as an Air Force -- it really makes you think about the great men like, Maj. Johns, and Col. Jenkins, who flew during World War II and laid the foundation for the great organization we have today. It’s an honor just to sit down and talk with Maj. Johns. Just to hear his stories is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Johns’ family is also exited for the upcoming event and is grateful that the Air Force would honor their loved one in such a way.
“On behalf of the entire family, I want to thank the base for doing this,” said Pete Mullenary, Maj. Johns’ son-in-law. It’s a very special thing for the Air Force to honor a man like him. It really means a lot to us. I know it will be very special for Gene. I can tell he’s excited. It will be like old friends reuniting, they’ve kept in touch over the years which I think will make the event that much more special.”
For Johns, the event promises to be more than just an occasion to pay homage to his old unit, but also a special opportunity to connect with a friend and wingman.
“I look forward to the event and speaking with him, we usually speak two or three times a year, ever since we retired,” said Johns. “I remember (Jenkins) flew his first mission after returning from (Rest and Recuperation) with me, he was at 3,000 feet and he began drawing flak. He was hit eight times, and I could see he had been hit from the flashes of light. He flew the airplane back, despite it being on fire. Once we got out of range of the flak, he asked me how he looked, I said, ‘not bad, but you’ve got a fire in your wheel-well’. The tire had burned away, but he landed on the rim, with a long stream of sparks flying down the runway. I’ll never forget that.”
The event honoring the 510th Fighter Squadron, and its last surviving WWII veterans, will be at Vandenberg’s Pacific Coast Club, April 7.