Angel On His Shoulder

James Corona during WWII.
James Corona during WWII.
Don Penning in his WWII aircraft.
Don Penning in his WWII aircraft.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the last few scenes of the Academy Award winning film, “Saving Private Ryan” Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks, rallies a group of GI’s in the defense of a French crossroads town in the early days of the invasion of Europe in 1944. Miller is mortally wounded and as a German tank moves toward him, threatening to overrun their position, he proceeds to fruitlessly shoot his .45 caliber pistol at the menacing monster. Suddenly, the tank explodes. Miller looks skyward and sees the American planes that have put the tank out of commission. Soon we see U.S. Army reinforcements streaming into the village and the battle for the village is over.

Private James Ryan, played by Matt Damon, makes his way to the captain and also looks to the sky. “They’re tank busters sir,” he explains. “P-51’s”

“Angels on our shoulders.” replied Miller, shortly before he passes on.

It was always a welcome sight during World War II (or any war for that matter) when American infantrymen on the ground saw American planes in the air above them. A good part of the job for the pilots of those planes was to protect the guys on the ground; to give them cover and to make it as safe for them as possible as they moved forward. They were often a great security blanket. This is the story of a pilot that did that job long after the war was over.

My father, James Corona, was 91 years of age and was really in pretty good shape for his age.  Oh, he had some issues but they were being treated and he had just kept going- working on his farm the same way he did since 1955.  However, lately, he had trouble breathing. That coupled with chest pains caused us to get him into the hospital.  He was admitted to ScrippsGreenHospital in San Diego on Monday July 18, 2011. His roommate was Don H. Penning. Don was from Oceanside, Calif. and was in far worse shape than Dad. He had congestive heart disease and had been told by the doctors that he had a month to a year left to live. They had done all they could. Don was 90 and he seemed at peace as he informed his family of the doctor’s findings and prepared for the eventuality of hospice.

He and Dad hit it off almost right away.  Both were veterans of World War II. Dad had served in the South Pacific with the 1st Cavalry Division. He saw action in places like Bougainville, the Bismarck Archipelago, the Admiralty Islands and the Philippines. Dad had been with the “Flying Column” that had traveled 100 miles in 66 hours to get into the Philippine capital of Manila and free 3700 American civilian prisoners in February of 1945. Along the way, he received the Bronze Star. Don had been a fighter pilot in China for the 118th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, flying P-51’s and P-38’s. He had received a Distinguished Flying Cross; 2 Air Medals and received the Chinese One Star Medal for Gallantry given to only 5 Americans during the course of the war. He almost became an “ACE” downing four enemy aircraft (you needed to shoot down 5)

Dad would eventually have a stint put in to help with the chest pains but the doctors had seen some things in his chest x-ray that they wanted to check out and so he would have to stay in the hospital for a couple of more days. Both were scheduled to be discharged on Friday.

The two of them talked to each other, joked with each other and were active in trying to charm the nurses into giving them more ice cream. On Thursday night, they talked for a long time.  Don told me later that one of the things they discussed was their mortality. “No regrets” they said. There wasn’t much that either of them would have done over. They felt that they had lived good long lives.

That night, Dad took a downturn and was struggling with his breathing. Sensing that Dad couldn’t call the nurses himself, Don called the medical staff into their room. He would stay up all night, looking after my father and brought the nurses in 4 times to tend to him. He got no rest and by the next morning was completely exhausted. Unfortunately, sometime that next morning, my Dad suffered a stroke which apparently cut off his breathing for good. By noon, he was gone. It was a blessing that he went quickly and that we were all there with him at the end. It was July 22, 2011

I made a point to see Don before he was discharged to let him know what had happened. When Dad’s stroke hit, the hospital staff went into “Code Blue” and they got Don into a wheelchair and off to another room. I found him sitting up on his bed preparing to leave.

“What happened?” he asked me earnestly. I told him the whole scenario and I thanked him for being so diligent with Dad through the night. I told him that our family would never forget it and that there was great comfort in knowing there had been someone to look out for him. His eyes welling up, Don shook my hand and said “He’d have done the same for me.” It meant a lot to me that after only four days together, he knew enough about my dad to say that about him. Don was right. If the situation had been reversed my Dad would have done the same for him, no doubt about it.  Don passed away in December 2011.

In the fog of grief that one experiences during times like this, I came to a very firm conclusion. It is my belief that my Dad and Don, two old veterans, becoming roommates in that hospital was no coincidence. It was no accident that there was one old vet in that room taking care of another old vet. It was no accident that an old pilot worked through the night trying to protect the old infantryman just as he had done almost 70 years before.  It was meant to be this way.

For my Dad, James Corona, Don Penning was the Angel on his Shoulder.

James Corona
James Corona

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