VISTA — History can be found in many places, from the History Channel to Wikipedia. But walk into Yum Yum Donuts on the corner of South Santa Fe Avenue and Escondido Avenue at around 10 a.m. on any given Saturday, and a group of old friends may just treat you to some firsthand recollections of eras long past.
“Of course, they’re all lies,” Laurel Carlson joked. Like most of the rest of the group that gathers every Saturday morning, he is in his mid-80s and is a veteran of World War II.
The informal group began meeting two decades ago. At one point, they numbered around 20. “People would see us old guys talking and join us and we’d ask them what unit they were in,” said John Valley, who was a bailiff for a pre-famous Judge Wapner as well as a soldier at Omaha Beach on D-Day.
Over the years, many of the kibitzers have passed away. The remainder still gather to enjoy each other’s company and to swap stories. Theirs are some of the few remaining eyewitness tales of the Second World War.
Carlson was in the Coast Guard serving aboard a giant landing craft. He was one of the first sailors in Japan, arriving in Yokohama just 10 days after the armistice.
“Everything was rubble, and they were scared to death of us,” Carlson recalled. “There were no women on the street at all.”
Jack Stevenson was a gunner’s mate on the destroyer U.S.S. Flusser, enlisting on his own initiative. “Pearl Harbor was attacked Dec. 7, and I was in boot camp Dec. 17,” he said.
Stevenson’s destroyer was at several key battles of the south Pacific and Philippine campaigns. The ship drove right up to the coast, often beaching its stern in the sand, to provide fire support for the Marines.
Stevenson made an interesting discovery as he shot at Japanese planes off of Leyte in 1944. “They said that kamikazes never wore parachutes, but I shot this one down and this parachute came down on us,” he said, pointing to an old photo of him on the Flusser’s deck holding dozens of yards of chute silk.
Jesse Penner’s experience was quite a bit different. He was drafted, and he didn’t land in the Philippines until the beaches had been cleared. He was an expense auditor, and while Stevenson operated 40-millimeter guns, Penner wielded a typewriter.
He did have the opportunity to meet Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander of allied forces in the southwest pacific, however. The general appeared at his desk one day bellowing, “What are we doing here, soldier?”
“We’re doing everything possible to win the war, sir!” was Penner’s confident reply. The general sauntered off, and that was the last Penner saw of him.
Humor and gentle ribbing come part and parcel with this group. Penner ribbed fellow donut-eater Arnold Pall, a former airplane crew chief, saying he had no idea how to fix his own planes.
“You know how he did it?” Penner asked. “He’d run over to another crew chief, ask him how to do it. Then he’d run back and tell his guys to do it that way.”
Pall accepted the accusation in stride. “That’s how you do it!” he said, proudly. Pall didn’t have a lot of fond memories of the war itself, but he did enjoy the time spent training beforehand in Santa Monica with the Douglas aircraft company.
“The parties!” he recalled. “That was the best time I ever had. I never wanted to go back. And then they sent us to Europe.”
The Yum Yum Donuts group welcomes any and all to join in the fun. Age is not a consideration.
“Pull any stranger off the street, and they’re likely to be younger than us,” Valley noted.