In nearly a weeklong celebration, Jack McEwan is honored by his fellow servicemen and Arcadia Mayor April Verlato
By Galen Patterson
The elderly men slowly trickled into the rear dining room of Coco’s in Pasadena. They are all veterans, most of them from World War II, a handful from Vietnam.
Ordinarily, they gather on the first Wednesday of every month but this month is different. Today these men and women celebrate the 100th birthday of a man among them, Jack McEwan.
McEwan sat proudly in the center of a long table, surrounded by his friends, with a single balloon dangling above his head and a massive smile on his face. He appears happy to be alive, and genuinely grateful for the gifts placed before him and the friendship that engulfs him in the back room of Coco’s.
He is the man of the hour and the century, as he welcomes conversation and returns graciousness to his friends.
McEwan was a pilot on a B-17 bomber from 1942-1943. He flew 58 missions over the course of a year and participated in several of the campaigns in the South Pacific — including the island of Guadalcanal, the first major victory for the Allies in the Pacific theater.
Throughout his service, McEwan earned a Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded for heroism and extraordinary achievement while flying in service to the country, and two Army Air Medals, for single acts of heroism and meritorious actions while in flight. “You go and do what you’re told to do and let the Lord watch over you,” said McEwan.
The B-17 bomber was called the Flying Fortress because of its heavy armament of gunners facing every direction, along with its ability to hold together after taking serious damage. Photos of successfully landed but badly mauled B-17s helped create this nickname.
All of the veterans in the room hold a unique point of view and experience from some of the most legendary, important and dangerous events in recent history. Curiously, every single member of this group is quick to pass attention onto another member, briefly highlighting their contributions to wars in service of their country.
To McEwan’s left sat Dale Perry, a PT Boat operator in the Mediterranean, who recently found out his old boat from the war, “Old Frankie” as they called it, has been in a museum in Fredericksburg, Texas, and is being restored to be used as a charter boat. He was invited to sail on it when it sails in March.
To Perry’s left was Larry Stevens, an Alhambra native who served as a tail gunner on a B-17 in Europe. Stevens wrote a memoir about his service, flying and bombing around Europe during World War II.
Across from Stevens and Perry sat Fernando Torres, who is highly regarded among the group and arrived in Europe in Normandy less than 24 hours after the initial invasion on D-Day. Torres talked about watching entire towns reduced to rubble before his eyes and casually camping in the gardens of Versailles. His wife, Gail Torres, talked about his involvement in all the major battles of American involvement during World War II and ending with the Battle of the Bulge in 1945, the last major offensive of the German Army.
Behind Torres sat Bruce Campbell, who fought in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II. The 10th Mountain Division was and is still the only division of mountain-trained troops in the U.S.
Campbell remembers seeing a short documentary about them, shooting guns while skiing shortly after having been drafted. Campbell, an avid skier, immediately sought out and passed the requirements of the exclusive force and soon found himself in Northern Italy, fighting Germans on the Gothic Line, the final defensive line of the German forces in Italy, which was situated in mountains across northern Italy.
Roughly 30 veterans gathered to celebrate Jack McEwan’s birthday, each with their own story to tell. After breakfast, they slowly began to leave the dining room, one by one, the way they had come in. Once again, they returned to carry on with their own lives.
The next morning was Jack’s official birthday, and the Mayor of Arcadia, April Verlato, had chosen to honor him at the community center.
In a small ceremony, Jack was was honored, recognized and awarded for his service to his country during the war, and his lifelong achievement of reaching 100.
Congresswoman Judy Chu’s office presented McEwan with a flag.
He sat alongside one of his sons, with his wife and other son close at hand, in a side room, full of natural light and answering the many questions of various reporters. He wore the same hat and the same smile from the previous morning.
Before long, McEwan left the community center for his next celebration at Gold’s Gym, where he still exercises several days a week.