Back in September, 91-year-old World War II veteran and Benicia resident John Lipsey joined two of his fellow fighter pilots for a nine-day excursion to Rapid City, S.D. There, they visited the Mount Rushmore National Monument, stayed at the Grand Gateway Hotel, shared stories and pictures and reminisced about their war experiences.
It was not the first time the men made such a trip, nor will it be the last.
Lipsey is an accomplished veteran, having done 58 missions in his P-47 Thunderbolt, including one across the Pacific. He also served in the Korean War, did reconnaissance missions over Cuba and crashed his plane twice but recovered with only minor bruises.
Unfortunately, Lipsey was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2009, which has made speaking very difficult for him. Nevertheless, Lipsey continues to travel the country every year with his fellow squadron mates, according to his daughter, Ginger Young.
The trips have taken them everywhere from San Diego to Savannah, Ga. to Albuquerque, N.M. Next year, they will be visiting Nashville, Tenn.
“They’ve been to nearly every state in the union, sometimes even twice,” Young said.
The idea for a reunion trip came about by a woman named Jean Kruferer, Young said. Her father was a colonel in the 58th Fighter Squadron of the Army Air Corps, which Lipsey was a part of.
“He wanted to get together with as many of the gentlemen that he could to establish some kind of rapport,” Young said.
Since then, the squadron members have reunited every year, usually in the second week of September. Kruferer’s father has since passed away, but she continues to keep the tradition going, even though the crew is now down to three members: Lipsey, Marty Jackson and Gene Holmes, Young said.
“My mom and my dad never missed a meeting,” Young said. “They attended about 30 of them, and then my mom passed away five years ago, so my sister, my brother and I have been holding up that tradition to go with my dad.”
Even after the war ended, Lipsey continued to fly planes. He got a job as a pilot for Island Creek Coal Company in West Virginia.
“He was known to be a great pilot for flying in mountainous areas,” Young said.
He also served as a private pilot for several famous people, including original “Today Show” host Dave Garroway, actress Lee Meriwether and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey back when he was a senator. Additionally, Lipsey also flew a camera crew to Puerto Rico for a National Geographic special.
Additionally, he opened Lipsey’s Muffler and Tire in Vallejo. The Sonoma Boulevard tire shop was sold to Lipsey’s son in 1990 and still carries his name, although the family no longer owns it, Young said.
On top of that, Lipsey was a commercial pilot for Eastern Air Lines and operated a transport company out of Oakland International Airport.
“He’s just done it all,” Young said.
After his diagnosis, Lipsey sold his plane, which is currently being housed at the Napa County Airport, but he still has his flight gear and goggles from his war days, Young said.
Young recalled her father’s proudest moment of when he repaid his commanding officer Steve for a gesture that happened in 1941. Lipsey and his crew, after surviving a mission, were ensconced in a foxhole in Japan. Having lost 42 planes that week, they figured Steve would not return. However, he did return the very next day.
“He said to my dad ‘If we survive this, you’ve got to find me a beer at the next place we go,’” Young said.
The men eventually did find a place, but Steve only had three coins from three different countries.
“My dad kept these coins all these years and gave them back to Steve (the commander) last year,” Young said. “Steve told him, ‘We survived some of the toughest eras of our lives. You’ve had these since the ‘40s. You just keep them.’”
Moreover, “His happiest moment was when the war ended,” Young said.
Overall, Young sees the trips as a good way for Lipsey to connect with his longtime friends.
“I’ve learned so much during these trips,” she said. “The men don’t talk about it until they’re together, and then they talk and cry and hug and laugh.”