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Dana Point’s Mitch Higginbotham, 91, recalls his time with the Army Air Corps’ all-African American squad of World War II pilots, depicted in a movie opening today.

By DAVID BRO / SPECIAL TO THE REGISTER

DANA POINT -(CA)- It was after 1 a.m. when Mitch Higginbotham got back to his Dana Point home Thursday, but the 91-year-old was wide awake. He had just attended the world premiere of the new George Lucas-produced film “Red Tails,” which opens Friday and depicts the World War II service of Higginbotham’s comrades in the Army Air Corps’ all-African American 332nd Fighter Group, more commonly known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

The fliers, trained at an Army air base in Tuskegee, Ala., were tasked with escorting bombers over Germany near the end of the war. They came to be known as the “Red Tails” because of the color they painted on the tails of their planes.

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Dana Point resident Mitch Higginbotham, 91, joined the Army Air Corps as a cadet, training to become a flight instructor with the Tuskegee Airmen. He remembers the “Red Tail” pilots and helping to train them on the ground as they prepared to enter World War II.
DAVID BRO, FOR THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Higginbotham remembers meeting Lucas more than 20 years ago and talking to him about the Tuskegee Airmen, and now he’s happy to see a movie about them.

“We just wanted to fight and do our part,” Higginbotham said.

SEE PHOTOS OF SOME OF HIGGINBOTHAM’S MEMORABILIA HERE.

Higginbotham, originally from Sewickley, Pa., joined the Army Air Corps as a cadet, training to become a multiengine-aircraft flight instructor. He remembers the Red Tail pilots and helping to train them on the ground as they prepared to enter the war.

Higginbotham never made it overseas and finished the war being brought up on military charges in the then-segregated Army after he and more than 100 other African American servicemen attempted to be served in the white officer’s club at his base. Higginbotham’s record was expunged in 1995.

After the war, he hoped to become an airline pilot but soon found that pilot jobs were scarce for African Americans, he said. So he decided to finish college.

“I would work a year in the steel mills and then go to college for a year,” he said.

Before becoming an air cadet, Higginbotham said, his studies were more in line with physical science. But after his experience in the Army, he concentrated on sociology and race relations, getting a degree from the University of Colorado.

He eventually became a probation officer for Los Angeles County.

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World War II vets in San Clemente spend Veterans Day distributing handmade Buddy Poppies to symbolize their solidarity, brotherhood and sacrifice while recalling experiences of their service.

By DAVID BRO / SPECIAL TO THE REGISTER

SAN CLEMENTE -(CA)- Army veteran Sam Thorndyke, 85, of San Clemente is on a mission. He’s pretty sure that if he lives to be 105 he’ll be the oldest living veteran of World War II’s Pacific theater.

On Friday, Thorndyke, a member of San Clemente’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7142, sat with fellow Army WWII veteran George Key, great-great-grandson of “Star-Spangled Banner” author Francis Scott Key, in front of the Ralphs supermarket off Camino de los Mares in San Clemente to hand out Buddy Poppies in honor of Veterans Day.  Buddy Poppies are lapel decorations made by vets as a symbol of solidarity and brotherhood and a remembrance of their sacrifice.

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Judy Brown of San Clemente accepts a Buddy Poppy from World War II veterans George Key, right, and Sam Thorndyke on Veterans Day. “We are so proud of our veterans,” Brown said.
DAVID BRO, FOR THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

WHERE TO GET A BUDDY POPPY

VFW Post 7142 is handing out Buddy Poppies on Friday and Saturday outside San Clemente’s two Albertsons supermarkets on Avenida Pico and the Ralphs and Stater Bros. stores on Camino de los Mares.

Donations will be accepted to support five veterans-related charities.

For more information, call George Key at 949-498-2489.

“The best part about this is the stories we get to share with people. We hear some great stories,” said Key, who served as an engineer and participated in five campaigns across Europe after landing at Omaha Beach in France.

Capistrano Beach resident Katherine Sgambellone said her grandfather fought as a German soldier in the muddy trenches of Europe during World War I.  She held her hands to her face and covered her mouth, illustrating how her grandfather told her is the best way to light a cigarette on a battlefield without getting shot. Opposing snipers would see the lighted end and shoot for its glow, she said.

The veterans around her nodded in agreement.

Thorndyke was an infantryman from 1944 to 1946 and was awarded the Bronze Star for his actions during the campaign to liberate the Philippines  from Japanese control.

Thorndyke recalled being on the Philippine island of Luzon when his captain asked for volunteers as scouts to lead a patrol through the jungle.  A buddy of his put his hand up.

His buddy was shot in the neck during the patrol, though the bullet went through without causing major damage and left just two little scars.

“Don’t ever volunteer,” Thorndyke told the soldier upon his return.

Telling the story Friday, he shared a laugh with Key when someone suggested Thorndyke should have given the advice before his friend volunteered.

Thorndyke held up his hands and smiled. “You just have to accept your fate and hope for the best,” he said.

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