Maj. John Hughes, a “Man of Legends,” was the last known Pearl Harbor veteran from Orange County, California

Lt. Colby Torres (right), a chaplin at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, attends with Marine Corps Maj. John Hughes (retired) at the Ewa Battlefield Memorial Ceremony December 6, 2016. Hughes is a survivor of the attacks that took place at Ewa Field on December 7, 1941. (Zachary Orr/US Marine Corps)

(Tribune News Service) — A photo shows John Hughes and four other Marines crouching on an airfield and firing rifles at Japanese planes attacking overhead. Black smoke and explosions surround them.

But it was years before the humble but highly decorated Navy aviator, the last known Pearl Harbor veteran living in Orange County, really told his family about his World War II experiences… and yes, bravery.

Hughes died earlier this month at the age of 102, just short of his 103rd birthday. He was buried on Wednesday 19 January.

Hughes was a man of great humility who loved his country and served it proudly for decades, said those who knew him. He enjoyed a healthy lifestyle, although he occasionally smoked a cigar and enjoyed a martini. At 69, he graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in history. He was there with two sons but graduated before them.

“He lived through a lot of history that he learned there, and sometimes he had a different version,” said his son Jerry Hughes, 70.

And he’s also written some military history.

The beginning of the Second World War

On December 7, 1941, Hughes, who grew up on a modest farm in what was then Rivera Township and joined the Marine Corps shortly after graduating from high school in 1937, was stationed at Mooring Mast, Ewa, Oahu, Hawaii. He was on his way to get the newspaper when he heard a low-flying noise and looked up to see planes with a big red ball on the side and torpedoes below. He and other Marines were informed that the Japanese might be up to something.

“He knew what it was and he called everyone he could and they started shooting,” said Jerry Hughes. “He said it was pretty hairy, but it was all he could do.”

A snapshot of these exploits is captured in this photo by an unknown photographer. Just a few minutes later more Japanese planes arrived. Hughes and other Marines tried to push the planes parked on the airfield apart to keep one from blowing up the next.

Then Hughes heard what sounded like massive thunder from Pearl Harbor and he assumed the USS Arizona had been hit.

In two hours the attack on Pearl Harbor was over. The cost at Ewa: 33 aircraft destroyed, 14 damaged, four marines killed.

Despite the drama and historical significance of this event that brought the US into World War II, Jerry Hughes said his father didn’t say much about this incident or the many other missions he would fly during the war and later during the Korean War .

“Most of those who served back then didn’t talk about it,” said Jerry Hughes. “He liked to fly and talk about it, but not the horrors of war.”

Revealing John Hughes ministry

It was not until much later that Hughes’ children would learn more about their father’s career and his importance to naval aviation.

For the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor in 2011, Hughes and his family traveled to Hawaii. As part of the event, Hughes was interviewed by National Park Service and Discovery Channel anchor Danny Martinez for a living history segment.

Jerry Hughes and his siblings listened.

“We found out things we didn’t know,” Jerry Hughes said, “and learned more about his experiences during the war.”

They found out how the former aircraft mechanic became a pilot and how the attack on Pearl Harbor affected it.

Hughes volunteered and was assigned to attend flight school in Pensacola. After training, he was deployed again to the South Pacific, where the Marines fought the Japanese across the many island chains. Hughes’ job was to dive-bomb the enemy.

He flew at least 50 missions over Guadalcanal, a decisive battle for the Americans. The battle of the Solomons was the first step towards Japan’s surrender. The Marines lost 1,152 on the ground and 55 in the air.

By 1945 his combat sorties had increased to 150.

While Hughes’ children didn’t get a better look at his service until after the Pearl Harbor visit, some Orange County Marine veterans knew of his exploits.

One of those men is Dwight Hansen, a retired naval aeronautical electrician who served at El Toro Naval Base from 1987 to 1993. Though only half Hughes’ age, he was fascinated by the older Marine’s stories.

Hansen, who is passionate about the military and military history, attended the county’s annual Memorial Day celebrations. He was particularly intrigued by the guys in white caps who had served at Pearl Harbor. On appropriate occasions, he asked her to pose in photographs with him and his three children, he said.

“I was attracted to them because my father was in World War II and I love history, especially living history,” said Hansen, 52, of Irvine.

Hansen also attended the monthly meetings of Chapter 14 Pearl Harbor Survivor Association, where he first met Hughes.

This chapter was disbanded in 2014 because so few of the veterans remained. The last surviving member, Dick Higgins, who served in the Navy and whose Ford Island barracks was the first to be bombed, moved out of Orange County in 2013. He is 100 years old and now lives in Oregon.

Higgins last saw Hughes in 2016, he said, at the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

“It’s nice to be with the other veterans,” said Higgins of Bend, where he lives with his granddaughter, Angela Norton. “We were a band of brothers.”

Norton recalls the visit, how excited her “grandpa” was to see Hughes.

“They talked and traded stories all night,” she said. “It’s a special camaraderie that can never be broken.”

The years of that camaraderie with Hughes were also something Hansen said he enjoyed.

“He was very reserved and acted like what he was doing was no big deal,” Hansen said of the man he was good friends with. They met for lunch, celebrated the Marine Corps birthday, and traveled to Hawaii for the Pearl Harbor anniversaries.

“My son calls these Marines ‘Men of Legends,'” Hansen said, adding that his son is a Marine combat photographer. “And that sums it up. As Marines, we have been told the stories of those before us and are very interested in traditions. To meet a legendary man who has been to Pearl Harbor, the Guadalcanal and throughout the South Pacific is incredible.”

Hansen said it was also Hughes’ example that inspired his children to serve. One is in the Army, one was in the Marines and his youngest just enlisted in the Marines.

“Growing up around these WWII veterans and seeing what kind of men they were and how willing they were to die for our country and our freedoms,” he said. “My kids want to help repay what they gave and follow in their footsteps.”

The legend goes on

After serving in World War II, Hughes continued his career in the Marine Corps and was assigned to the El Toro Base. Not long after, he married Mary Duba of Libertyville, Illinois. But in 1952 he was back in action, having worked with famous aviator Igor Sikorsky to develop the Sikorsky helicopter. He flew the same helicopter during the Korean War on rescue and rescue missions.

He later told other Marines like Hansen and his children that these missions to save others were more important to him than any of the bombing raids during WWII because it “did good.”

After continuing his military service in Cherry Point, NC, military schools and the Pentagon, Hughes returned to El Toro in 1961 to teach young aviators how to fly helicopters. He retired from there in 1964.

Jerry Hughes said he and his siblings are very pleased with their father’s life well lived. He said his father did not consider a civilian aviation career because “if you don’t have ordnance, what’s the point?” Instead he ran a small shop.

“We’re incredibly proud and we know the sacrifices that all these guys have made,” said Jerry Hughes. “He was a true Marine who honored everything about the Corps. Basically, he was willing to do whatever they did.”

Hughes lived the rest of his life in the house he and Mary bought in Santa Ana in 1961. He also died there on January 7th.

He was a quiet man who never raised his voice, and he taught his children the values ​​of humility, hard work and service, his son said.

For Jerry Hughes, he said what he will remember most is that his father lived a life “with no regrets.”

“He didn’t dwell on the past, he was proud of the past,” said Jerry Hughes. “He took pride in his ministry and what America stood for. He didn’t brag and he knew he had done his duty. And he respected other marines for doing the same, especially ground forces, those were the real heroes.”

Hughes is survived by his children: Lorie Franck, John Hughes, Jerry Hughes, Nancy Hughes, and Jim Hughes, as well as nine grandchildren, eleven great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren.

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