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Marines pay tribute to veterans at Orange County Great Park. Photo courtesy Orange County Great Park Corp.

Honoring El Toro Marines

Orange County Great Park Hosts Tribute Event for Veterans

November 10, 2009

By Mimi Ko Cruz

Tell Your Story

Cal State Fullerton's Center for Oral and Public History is seeking to interview veterans who were stationed at El Toro to record for its El Toro Marine Corps Air Station Oral History Project.

To be a part of the project, call 657-278-8415 or send an e-mail to

“To me, El Toro was like the Statue of Liberty of the West Coast.”

The quote, from retired Master Sgt. David Gaylord’s oral history was recited by Cal State Fullerton alumna Kira A. Gentry at a special tribute for veterans once stationed on the former El Toro Marine Corp base.

Gentry and graduate history students John Elliott, Adam Kelly and Janet Tanner read excerpts from some of the nearly 250 oral histories of the men and women who lived or worked at the base in the 1940s and ‘50s as part of a performance at the Nov. 7 event, hosted by the Orange County Great Park Corp.

Nearly 300 guests attended the event, at which they listened to music and speeches by Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang, Larry Agran, chairman of the Orange County Great Park Corp., and William W. Haddad, chair and professor of history at Cal State Fullerton.

Visitors stop to view a banner with Lt. Col. Jessie Lewis' words: "You have to remember the guys that left this place and never came back." Photo courtesy Orange County Great Park Corp.

Those being feted included 78 of the narrators, who are part of Cal State Fullerton Center for Oral and Public History’s ongoing El Toro Marine Corps Air Station Oral History Project.

“It was a wonderful gathering of narrators and their families,” said Natalie M. Fousekis, associate professor of history and director of the Center for Oral and Public History. “I felt proud to be a part of an event that honored those who took the time to share their memories of El Toro with us. Without these interviews much of the history of the El Toro base and the surrounding community during the World War II and Korean War eras would be lost.”

Fousekis, Volker Jannsen, assistant professor of history, and 18 students and alumni — Elliott, Gentry, Kelly, Tanner, Ana Acker, Brenda Arreola, Patricia Campbell, Maria Carrillo, Sarah Davison, Gregory Garcia, Ryan Ghoslin, Maria Hernandez-Figueroa, Daniel Hilger, Ryan Hunt, Rob Miller, Sam Price, Radiance Santifer and Juan Silva — have recorded or are recording the oral histories.

Music, dancing and a dramatic performance entertained guests at a special tribute to veterans at the Orange County Great Park on Nov. 7. Photo courtesy Orange County Great Park Corp.

The following are a few excerpts:

From retired Capt. Harry Stites: “The worst part of the Korean experience was the battle of the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea in November and December. I was there and the temperatures during the day hovered around 25 below and, at night, 40 below. We were completely surrounded by the 24th Chinese Field Army which had 10 divisions, and even to this day, I’m not sure that the Chinese were our worst enemy, then the weather. There was just no way to get warm.”

Retired Sgt. Major Royden Brunet: “One of the things I remember vividly was, you know, you’re not used to seeing people in difficult situations. But, we were in this first flight of three planes. We were flying left wing and then there was the leader, and then the right wing. And, for some reason or other, I can’t tell you just exactly what happened, but the lead plane and the right wing collided. And, the lead plane broke in two right behind the rear cockpit and it started down. I saw the pilot, Lt. McNally, jump. His shoot never opened. I watched him fall 6, 7,000 feet into the ocean. And, of course, that was a rude awakening. I grew from a boy to a man that day.”

Roberta Herlihy: “I was one of the lucky ones whose husband came home. When my husband was overseas, I just, you know, every day, I’d just wake up and think, well nobody came to visit me at the door today. It wasn’t easy. He left me one time, 15 months with four children. And one of my children was born after he left. So, it’s not an easy life. It really isn’t for the wife. And you do worry. And you pray a lot. I’d say, well, I knew what I was getting into when I married him. Marine Corps was his first love. I was his second. It’s always been that way. I’m fine with it.”

Retired Gen. John Davis: “Anybody who was ever stationed there will remember it as, you know, probably the best base they were ever stationed at. I think the most important thing is what they did in all these wars. They trained I don’t know how many thousands in World War II, how many thousands in Korea, how many in Vietnam, how many in Gulf War I. El Toro made a great contribution to the Marine Corps and the country.”

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