TAHOE CITY, Calif. — They are World War II U.S. Navy military brothers, who served in the Admiralty Islands of the Southwest Pacific, toiling to repair battleships and aircraft in sweltering 120-degree temperatures.
These honorable men transformed the tropic sea and jungle into an instrumental base of resistance, where Navy ships were fueled, provisioned and supplied for battle in the Philippines.
They are boatswains, mechanics, metalsmiths, service administrators — they did anything that needed to be done to support the troops.
Their annual gathering occurred Tuesday, Sept. 11, at the Lighthouse Marina in Tahoe City. The assembled veterans rolled down the blanched wooden pier, autumn light reflecting off an azure Lake Tahoe to the Navy tune “Anchors Away.” The Placer County Sheriff's honor guard, in full parade dress, flags and rifles upright, stood at attention.
Each veteran snapped a salute to the uniformed men and women as they passed.
“I can't think of a better place to be today,” said Deputy Skogen, of the Loomis substation of the Placer County Sheriff's Office. “I'm a vet myself (Air Force, Travis Air Force Base), and they don't make them like this anymore. Not many people (veterans) my age would have saluted.”
Glenn Toms, who served in the Combat Aircraft Service Unit 42 in the Admiralty Islands from 1944-45, and in the Korean War through 1951, organized the reunion of the Admiralty Islands Naval air ground support troops 20 years ago. What started as a group of 12 burgeoned to 450. The roster now stands at 38.
These sailors stick together, like a second family, according to his wife, June Toms. And they got a taste of the not-so-salty international waters on the Tahoe Gal, sponsored entirely by Larry Boerner and his wife, owners of the eco-friendly paddlewheeler.
“Back in spring, the organizer asked me what would it cost to have them,” said Boerner. “I said it would be my honor.”
Ann Irving, whose father served in World War II in the South Pacific, has organized many of the September reunions. She seeks a combination of Southwest Airlines hub locations, interesting historic points and surroundings that don't overwhelm and are appropriate for the physical limitations of ages 86-95.
“We don't need dancing or Dixieland. When I asked Larry, he was most gracious, understanding, and reflected upon his own father's World War II Naval service,” said Irving, who delivered a home-baked carrot cake to seal the deal.
Boerner contacted the Placer County Sheriff's Office and also the Coast Guard, who provided an escort boat beside the Tahoe Gal. The reunion group of veterans, wives and daughters stood cheering as a Coast Guard C-130 lumbered from the Sierra Nevada ridgeline toward the Tahoe Gal, glinting silver passing once, twice, low overhead in an aerial salute.
Doris Telles, a 30-year Coast Guard chief waiting retirement, attended with her sister Lillian, mother Lilly and father Robert Telles, 90, who joined the Navy in 1941. His second wife, Charmaine, said, “It's an emotional voyage. I was holding back the tears.”
Toms said a prayer for soldier brothers who have passed this life, a prayer for brothers who remain, and a prayer for the United States of America. A moment of silence was held, and three carnations were tossed overboard to symbolize the three brothers who left this earth in 2011. Amen. Assistant Don Wagenbach sang a short ballad, and the travelers shared hugs and a few tears. Then, Irving reminded all to celebrate life, and to remember the good times.
“We should all be proud of this country, and these service men hope it will stay this way forever,” said Toms. “We know things are changing … the younger generation doesn't get what we fought for.”
“Not many people remember what these guys did for our country,” said Betty Egbert, whose departed husband served on Manus Island as a machinist at Base Hospital 15. “He would have enjoyed this, sharing so many memories.”
Irving pointed out the men on board included doctors, lawyers, electronic technicians, veterinarians — every profession in the book. Ralphie Rebich wired the nose cone for the moon space shuttle. Robert Smalley was an ambassador for President Ronald Reagan.
But when they gather, the playing field is leveled: They are bothers in service.
“It was gut wrenching,” said Boerner of the ceremony, the camaraderie. “My heart was in my throat out there. It was wonderful.”