PHOENIX — A member of the “greatest generation” is honored to be a grand marshal in Phoenix’s Veterans Day parade.
Gerald Huffman, 93, of Fountain Hills, Arizona, earned the Navy Cross, the second-highest medal of military service for valor.
He also has a Silver Star Medal, a Distinguished Flying Cross and eight Air Medals. His military career spanned World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War.
And it started as a fluke.
As a 19-year-old college kid, Huffman tagged along with a buddy who was taking tests in Kansas City to become a Navy pilot in 1942. Huffman got tired of waiting in the car, went inside and was met by a recruiter.
“And he said what’s your name? I said, ‘I’m not here for the aviation cadet selection board, I’m here to get his car keys.’ He said, ‘You might as well take the test.’ My friend said, ‘Come on,’ so I said ‘OK.’
Huffman passed but his friend didn’t.
Three years later the largest, heaviest and most powerfully constructed Japanese warship, considered unsinkable, filled his cockpit window. Huffman and 400 Navy aircraft went in under heavy fire.
“We were the first ones down on the Yamato. Initially it was to draw antiaircraft fire away from the torpedo planes which come in low. We had rockets and bombs. I remember the splashes of antiaircraft fire out in front of me and beside me.”
Huffman, now 93, scored two rocket hits, which caused serious damage to the Yamato’s flight deck. A few hours later the Yamato was on the sea floor.
Huffman’s squadron made the first aircraft carrier raids on Toyko after the Doolittle Raid of April 1942. The Doolittle mission was the first U.S. air raid to strike the Japanese islands during the war.
“Our first raid was on a large Naval base on the outskirts of Toyko and later that afternoon we hit an air station on the outskirts of Toyko,” Huffman said.
“We flew in three divisions of four planes. There were 12 of us. Four were shot down by Japanese fighters and antiaircraft fire.”
Huffman remembered a close call after making a strike on a Japanese pilot base.
Another American pilot clipped his plane, taking out Huffman’s tailhook. The other pilot survived the water landing. Huffman couldn’t return to the aircraft carrier so he landed in Okinawa and that saved American lives.
“Without a tailhook, if I landed on a carrier I would crash into the barriers because there wouldn’t be anything to slow or stop the plane. That would delay them from recovering aircraft low on fuel in the air. They wouldn’t allow that because it’s better to lose one than three or four or 10.”
Huffman has few regrets but he did want to be an astronaut.
The parade is Nov. 11.