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Arlington WWII veteran organizes reunion of his air squadron in Everett
ARLINGTON At the age of 82, Arlington native Don McPherson is one of the younger men of VC-27, one of the Navys most highly decorated aircraft squadrons in the Pacific theater during World War II.
McPherson coordinated for the 12th annual reunion of the surviving members of the squadron and ships company of USS Savo Island, its escort carrier, in Everett May 3-7. He recalled many of their experiences in the military and during the war, while admitting that many other memories have been lost.
I try to put together lists, but I forget all kinds of things, McPherson said. A lot of old photos have disappeared over the years.
McPherson still has photos of himself from his time in the VC-27 air-to-air squadron, which was established Nov. 5, 1943, at Naval Air Station Sand Point in Seattle.
It surprises me when I see them, said McPherson, who was commissioned as an ensign on Oct. 30, 1943, when he was 19. I think we get used to ourselves, so we dont think we change that much.
It took more than two years for McPherson to join VC-27. He graduated from high school in Montesano, Wash., in 1942 at the age of 17, but the only job he could land at first was as a mechanic learner electrician at the Bremerton Naval Shipyard. He enlisted as a naval aviation cadet Sept. 28 of that year, after reading that the age and scholastic requirements had been lowered, but an unresolved issue with his citizenship nearly stopped his military career before it had started.
Id been born in Mexico and my dad hadnt secured my citizenship, said McPherson, who spent two weeks tracking down documents to convince the Immigration Department that he qualified as a United States citizen. It was a bit of a shock, since Id thought I was a citizen all that time.
Before he could receive his gold wings, McPherson had to complete two months of civilian pilot training in Kalispell, Mont., three months of pre-flight training at St. Marys College in California, and three months of flying Stearmans in Livermore, Calif. After performing advanced flight an instrument work at Corpus Christi Naval Air Station in Texas, he had to earn his carrier landing qualifications at Great Lakes Naval Air Station in Illinois.
You still have to land aboard a carrier to be a naval fighter pilot, said McPherson, who was assigned to VC-27, which was stationed at Brown Field Naval Air Station in California, after eight landings. It was there that I found out how little I really knew.
VC-27 boarded USS Savo Island July 6, 1944, to spend the next seven months in the South Pacific combat zone. The combined ship and squadron shot down 65 planes and sank a heavy cruiser, a destroyer and a submarine. They participated in the invasions of Palau and the Philippine islands of Luzon and Leyte, and engaged Japanese forces during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
McPherson acknowledged the fear he felt when landing on the carrier at night, as well as the first time he was fired upon in the air.
We were strafing Palau and on our third or fourth pass, I saw these bright flashes of red and realized we were being shot at, McPherson said. There were bursts in the air all around us. I was near the tail end, so the enemy fire came closer to me. It took a while for my nerves to settle down.
While the squadron members needed to be able to take the dangers of combat in stride, they also couldnt afford to forget those dangers.
We lost a plane the next day, McPherson said. It was serious business. I was 19 years old. I see kids now who are 19, and theyre kids. I guess we grew up fast. If kids today were put in the same position, theyd probably do as well, but you cant simulate that sort of experience. I lost my best friend up there.
McPherson credited Lt. Ralph Elliot with mentoring him and teaching him how to fly.
He showed me what a truly great pilot was like, McPherson said. Id always considered myself an eager beaver, but I couldnt hold a candle to Ralph. He reminded me of Gen. Patton. He was six foot tall and I was five foot seven, so when we went out together, it worked out well because he could get the tall girls and I could get the short girls. He flew out one day and didnt come back.
McPherson remained in the Naval Reserve for more than 20 years after WWII, finally retiring as a commander. He met his future wife Margaret while stationed in Pasco, Wash., in 1945, before doing engineering work for the federal government for 17 years, serving as a court commissioner who acted as a judge on misdemeanor criminal crimes for three years, and going into real estate, land development and building construction until he retired at the age of 60.
McPherson enjoys his life today, especially since his 11 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren are all within 20 minutes drive from his waterfront property in Shelton, Wash., where he harvests and sells Grandpas Oysters. Still, he remains happy to revisit the damned dangerous flying he did during the war, as well as the fellow veterans with whom he worked hard and played hard.