Jeff Jardine

Not all kamikazes he saw were heroic

Fred McMullen, 87 when the photo was taken last year, shows a picture of the USS Nevada taken on Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor. McMullen, left, in uniform, served aboard the Nevada.
Fred McMullen, 87 when the photo was taken last year, shows a picture of the USS Nevada taken on Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor. McMullen, left, in uniform, served aboard the Nevada. Modesto Bee

From the e-mails and voice mails:

TAPS -- The valley lost yet another of its Pearl Harbor survivors when Gustine's Fred McMullen, 88, died Saturday in Turlock.

I'd interviewed McMullen for a column in 2006.

In all those years since Dec. 7, 1941, he rarely spoke to wife Betty, their children or grandchildren about the horrors he endured that day.

Then, in 2002, the family sent the McMullens on a Hawaiian vacation. It coincided with a reunion of survivors from the USS Nevada, on which he served, along with memorial ceremonies for those killed on the Nevada and the USS Oklahoma, and a visit to the USS Arizona Memorial. He attended them all.

It was an emotional trip and one that enabled McMullen to open up not only to his family, but also to me for the column. After that, every so often he'd read something that piqued his interest in the paper and call to talk about it. One particular story irked him to no end.

In July 2007, The Bee published a wire story about Japanese kamikaze pilots, looking at it from the Japanese point of view and the so-called glory of dying for the cause.

He found that disgusting.

"This is Fred McMullen out in Gustine and I want to know why you printed that garbage -- and on the front page," he said, or something akin to that.

After surviving the Pearl Harbor attack while aboard the Nevada -- he actually threw a splicing tool at a low-flying Japanese plane -- he was reassigned to the light cruiser USS St. Louis. He said he watched kamikaze pilots purposely miss their targets rather than die in a ball of flames hitting the American ships. Not that he was complaining, of course. But to see them portrayed as heroes simply turned his stomach.

He told me about one kamikaze who flew toward the St. Louis.

"I ran out of ammo shooting at one of them," McMullen said. "I was looking him straight in the eye and he was still flying that plane. He wasn't hurt."

The pilot ditched his plane in the Pacific -- not into the ship.

"He chickened out," McMullen said. "He didn't want to hit us."

How many Pearl Harbor survivors remain in the valley is unknown. The San Joaquin chapter of the survivors' association disbanded in 2006 because the membership had dwindled to just 10. But McMullen, and likely many others, never joined the organization.

His viewing will be from

5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Hillview Funeral Home in Gustine. The funeral will be at 11 a.m. Thursday, followed by burial at the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery in Santa Nella.

A FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE -- Eventually it seems, all things and all people have some connection to the valley. Included was actor Paul Newman, who died Friday at 83. He made his best-known movie, "Cool Hand Luke," 40 miles north of Modesto.

According to the Web site IMDB's trivia link for the film, crews built a Southern-style prison near Stockton. It included the barracks, the mess hall, guard shack, warden's quarters and dog kennel.

"While passing by the prison camp set, a San Joaquin County building inspector thought it was a recently constructed migrant worker's complex, and posted 'condemned' notices on the buildings for not being up to code," according to IMDB.

TIRING DAY -- Last week, I wrote about south Modesto resident Jack Downer, who became a one-man abandoned tire abatement crew. His wife had come home from work early one morning, making a sharp turn from South Ninth onto Latimer and quickly hitting two tires that had been dumped on the road. It did about $2,500 damage to the underside of her 2007 Mustang. He asked a couple of tire shop owners and managers if they would haul off whatever he brought in, and they agreed.

Within one day, working an area of maybe two square miles, he gathered 114 tires.

I thought of him Saturday while driving east of Oakdale. Someone dumped a stack of old tires along the road near an almond orchard.

The state makes shops charge their customers disposal and recycling fees for each tire sold. A thought: Perhaps some of the money collected should be set aside as California redemption value, paying people to collect and turn in discarded tires just as they do beer cans.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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