A bond shared over Marine service unites veterans in a mission to remember – Orange County Register

A bond shared over Marine service unites veterans in a mission to remember – Orange County Register

Marine veteran Dwight Hanson, 55, who served in the Persian Gulf War, and Billy Hall, 98, who served in WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam, are bonded by their service to their country. They now speak together at events like Armed Forces day in Newport Beach on Saturday, May 18, 2024. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Retired Marine Maj. Billy Hall was surrounded by Costa Mesa High students listening intently as he told them what it was like to be a teenage radioman and tail gunner aboard bombers during World War II.

Next to him was a photo of his younger self, when at 15 in 1941 he went to boot camp at Marine Recruit Depot San Diego. Hall, who earned a Bronze Star among other distinguished medals, is believed to be the last living veteran to have enlisted before Pearl Harbor and see combat action in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Now, together with Dwight Hansen, who served in the Marines for six years and deployed to the Gulf War in 1991, he’s still serving. The two run the You Were Worth It Foundation, a nonprofit focused on making sure all who served, and died, are remembered, never forgotten and always welcomed home.

In the three years since starting their foundation, they’ve visited civic groups, schools and active-duty military more than 150 times across Southern California. They’ve talked of sacrifice and service at Camp Pendleton, the USS Midway in San Diego, the Bob Hope Patriotic Hall in Los Angeles, Marine Corps recruit stations in Orange and Los Angeles counties, and the Riverside National Cemetery.

Ahead of Memorial Day, they’ve been extra busy hoping to impress on those they speak to that freedom isn’t free and that, for many,  defending the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, meant losing their lives.

For Hall, the holiday marks a day to reflect on the “guys and girls I knew who didn’t show up again.”

“I have a feeling that I need to show up for them,” he said, “and I need to instill the things they were fighting for.”

In a robust voice and vivid detail, Hall, 98, of Orange, told stories of conflict to the high school students, including being at the back of the bomber during a fight over the Solomon Islands and keeping Japanese guns off his plane’s tail while also keeping tabs on its bomb bay where the weapons were stored.

The scene unfolded in 1943 as Allied and Japanese forces fought a campaign for superiority during the Battle of Bougainville. The 3rd Marine Division landed on Bougainville Island on Nov. 1, leading an amphibious force of about 14,300 troops. The Marines disrupted Japanese sea and air communications in the Southwest Pacific.

“We started at 6,000 feet,” Hall recalled, using a posterboard showing what his bomber looked like and where he sat. “My job was to open the bombs and then go back and work the guns in the rear. I started to check the bombs because they don’t always go out. You don’t want to come in with an open bomb there ’cause they’re live and ready to fire.”

“What did they give you?” prompted Hansen.

“A long 12-foot pole; you had to go back there and press the ones that were hung up,” Hall continued.

“What happens next?” Hansen asked. “You saw something coming from behind.”

“I could see this flash from a wing,” Hall said. “It was a plane shooting at us; I threw my gun at it. Then, when we dropped the bombs, and I got down into my seat, I noticed fluid on the left side window. We started checking and we were losing all the fluid in our tank. It turned out we didn’t have enough to get back.”

“But my pilot knew where a Seabees construction battalion had hidden fuel on those small islands so we could make an emergency landing and pick up fuel,” he continued. “We did that and got back to our base. The next day, we took the wing off and discovered we’d been hit by a 22-millimeter round of ammo. It turned out that out of thousands of rounds, there are some duds. I wouldn’t be sitting here if it wasn’t a dud.”

The two veterans – nearly 50 years apart in age – are perfectly synched telling Hall’s stories.

“It’s because of our Marine brotherhood,” said Hansen, 55, cueing Hall up for another story about the USS Arizona.

He first met Hall at an American Legion luncheon for World War II and Korea veterans in 2021.

Hansen, a history buff who came from a family of service and grew up visiting Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields around Washington D.C., said he tremendously respects Hall and other veterans who fought in some of the Marine Corps’ most significant conflicts, such as the battles of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, the Chosin Reservoir and Hue City.

“I’ve heard Billy speak over 1,000 times,” Hansen said. “Even when I’m not next to him, I can tell by his mannerisms what story he’s telling.”

In the last week or so, in addition to Costa Mesa High, they spoke at schools in Newport Beach and at an Armed Forces Day remembrance put on by the Newport Beach Exchange Club at Castaways Park. The duo also headed out to Camp Pendleton earlier this month to speak with active-duty Marines.

For Marines to meet Hall live is “like meeting a celebrity,” said Maj. Mike Nolan, an infantry Marine who now heads up the Marines’ Orange County Recruit Station.

“Billy is a true hero,” Nolan said. “We’ve grown up hearing about the legends of Guadalcanal, Korea and Vietnam. Every time he comes, there’s a long line waiting to meet him, and they’re on the edge of their seat listening to his stories. We’ve heard about it and read about it, but to actually meet him makes it real.”

Nolan said creating that authenticity is important, especially around Memorial Day as communities throughout Southern California remember the losses and stand together in patriotism to honor the fallen.

“It bridges the gap between people who’ve read books and watched movies and brings it to life,” he said. “For me, I’ve read so many books and case studies on Guadalcanal and Korea, the way he describes the events makes you realize the actual impact on the human being.”

Even when Hall is a bit tired, he musters himself to speak, he said. In the last week, as speaking engagements racked up, his health wasn’t 100%, but Hansen was at his side to help, even spending the night a few times to make sure Hall was doing alright.

At the event at Castaways, Hansen asked another Silver Star recipient, Charles Cram, who fought at Iwo Jima to step in and help during the presentation. Cram, who also received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, was one of 25 Marines to leave the battlefield where 90% were killed. He was shot by a Japanese sniper as he used his body to shield his Marines as he gave them lifesaving aid. He refused to be evacuated until he was forced to.

Denise Weillard coordinates the living history program sponsored by the Freedom Committee Orange County for the Newport-Mesa School District; the program is meant to give students a greater appreciation of those who served and the freedoms they protect.

“The students can relate to Billy’s story since he was their age when he enlisted,” she said. “Everyone walks away feeling inspired and worthy.”

“They’re a dynamic duo,” she added. “Like father and son.”

Hansen agrees, adding that he views his relationship with Hall similarly. When they met, Hansen was looking for a way to take 22 veterans to the 80th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor Remembrance on a short time frame.

“Billy was one of the ones to say ‘yes,’” Hansen said. “Then halfway through the trip, Billy asked, ‘What are we doing next week?’ He didn’t realize what he was getting in to.”

On that trip, Hansen also learned that Hall’s son, a Vietnam veteran, was buried in Hawaii and together they found the burial site Hall had yet to be able to visit.

“I saw him salute his son,” Hansen said. “It was powerful.  I think that’s when our relationship changed.”

Since then, the two have been inseparable, with Hall calling Hansen “necessary in his life.”

“It’s like I’m a movie star and he’s my personal agent,” Hall said, his eyes smiling. “I hesitate to use the word love, but he’s up there pretty high in my esteem. He needs me, and I need him; we wouldn’t be out there doing what we’re doing without the bond. We didn’t start out to be a bond, it just developed. It just fit.”

Together, they tell the story of Hall’s service career from 1941 to 1967. In 1942, Hall deployed to Guadalcanal. By 17, he had flown more than 100 combat missions and, in 1945, completed 50 anti-submarine and enemy shipping patrol missions. Hall then joined the California National Guard in 1948 and deployed to Korea as an Army infantry and communications officer in 1951, devising methods of radio communication improvement and securing the placement of communication lines.

Hall retrained as a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War and joined the Army as a pilot. He flew more than 50 combat, insertion, extraction, supply, and medical evacuation missions during that war.

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