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Jerry Coleman can be found at nearly all San Diego Padres home games, either behind a radio microphone or in his own booth, but on a recent night the longtime broadcaster and former New York Yankee had someplace else to be.Good for the Colonel, West Coast Bias thought. A man 86 years old should get a break from watching these Padres.Come to find Coleman was hobnobbing with some of his favorite people -- military aviators and mechanics, hundreds of whom convened at a San Diego hotel to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Marine aviation.The active Marines honored, among others, Coleman, who piloted divebombers in World War II and attack planes in the Korean War."I'm the oldest one around," he said, laughing. "That's why they got me to go."Marines generally fight on land, but Marine pilots, too, have played a major role in combat, notably in World War II."The SBD divebomber sank four carriers at Midway," said Coleman (pictured above). "That changed the war."One year after Pearl Harbor and envisioning himself in the cockpit of a divebomber, Coleman, then 18, went to the San Francisco ferry building and signed up for the Navy and flight school. The year was 1942. Two years later, he was flying missions near the Philippines.
Air warfare, he said, was "clean" relative to the horrors of ground combat. Nonetheless, it sounds terrifying.At 13,000 feet, Coleman and fellow pilots pointed their planes downward knowing that 37-mm guns would strafe their descent before they could drop their single, 1,000-pound bomb.Some of his friends were blown out of the sky. Others, unable to pull out of their dive, perished in a fireball.In the Korean War, a fellow pilot whose plane was hit by anti-aircraft shells went into a snap roll. Coleman, tasked with seeing if his friend would parachute out, circled behind as the smoking plane plummeted. There would be no parachute sighting, only a fireball.Between his combat tours, Coleman was a baseball player on the biggest stage. He played second base for the mythical Yankees. He roomed with Mickey Mantle, called Joe DiMaggio a friend, chatted with Marilyn Monroe and laughed with pal Yogi Berra."Great times," he said, "but my five years in the Marine Corps are the most important in my life because of the consequences."He said he had it easier as a pilot than the military pilots who are flying helicopters today in the Middle East. Helicopters must fly close to the ground and aren't as fast as the planes he flew.
"I was a patriot," he said, going into this Memorial Day weekend, "but this stuff about our generation being the greatest generation – young people today would have done the same thing. I really don’t believe our generation was any better. There are so many great young people today." Photo: Courtesy of Jerry Coleman.
Jerry Coleman a true American Patriot