At 17, J. Don Garcia could read the writing on the wall. It was 1942 and World War II was in full swing. Garcia said he knew when he turned 18, he would be drafted into the Army, so he got his mother’s permission to enlist early in the Navy instead.
“I really had an inclination all my life to be in the Navy,” he said. “My brother was in the Army and we had nine kids altogether. She probably didn’t even miss me. She probably was glad to be rid of me.”
So, Garcia went up to basic training in Farragut, Idaho, while his chair at Tooele High School’s graduation, like the chairs of the other young servicemen who missed the ceremony, was draped in a flag.
Garcia, now 90, served for three and a half years aboard an aircraft carrier, the USS Makin Island, in the South Pacific. The Makin Island was a Casablanca-class escort carrier that housed a squadron each of fighter and bomber planes. During some times, the ship would remain at sea for a year between ports, replenished by fuel tankers and supply ships. Garcia said he never once got seasick aboard ship, though some of his shipmates weren’t as lucky, and didn’t mind the experience of life on the carrier.
“I liked it. It was enjoyable,” he said. “I had some good friends aboard ship.”
At one point, when the Makin Island was at port in San Diego, Garcia and some friends hitchhiked to Long Beach, but could not find a ride home, he said. Then, they spotted a car, unlocked, with a rumble seat and keys inside. Garcia and the other sailors jumped in and started heading back to ship. Along the way, they picked up a pair of Marines, who sat in the rumble seat until they stopped at their base, he said, then the sailors continued to San Diego, where they wiped their fingerprints from the car and left it as they returned to duty.
“I think I’m a born thief, but I’ve repented,” he said, recalling the incident. “I’m a righteous-living individual now.”
During his time at sea, the Makin Island was involved with five major conflicts, including the Battle of Wake Island, the Battle of Okinawa, the Battle of Saipan and the Battle of Iwo Jima. It was at the latter that Garcia saw the end to the war.
“We were in Iwo Jima when the war ended and that’s where we were when they dropped the bomb on Japan. We covered the invasion of the Philippines,” he said. “It was an exciting and well-spent three and a half years in the South Pacific. I was just glad I was able to do it.”
Garcia said although his ship saw plenty of action, especially in his job manning two twin 40-millimeter anti-aircraft guns, he was more afraid of Mother Nature than the enemy.
“We had a lot of air attacks. You got your adrenaline up. I don’t remember bing scared. I remember being excited,” he said. “The scariest part of the war, as far as I’m concerned, is riding through a typhoon. You think that little ship is going to break right in half.”
While Garcia, and the Makin Island, made it through the war without any major harm from enemies or the elements, not everyone was so lucky. A friend from before the war was serving on a similar ship near Iwo Jima.
“[His ship] got sunk in Iwo Jima from those kamikaze planes, those suicide planes, and I never heard back from him,” he said.
In February 1946, six months after the end of the second World War — as per his enlistment agreement to serve for the duration of the war plus six months — Garcia turned down an invitation to re-enlist for another four years and came home to Tooele. He learned carpentry from an uncle, and later turned the skill into a general contracting business.
It was while working as a general contractor, enticed to build and renovate homes in Delta in 1949, that he met his wife, Nona, who was working at a cleaning company. Nine months later, they were married.
Almost 65 years later, the pair has raised six children, one of whom has taken over Garcia’s contracting business with his own son, with 18 grandchildren and 39 great-grandchildren joining the clan. Although Garcia is retired, for the last seven years he has been manning the crosswalk on Utah Avenue near West Elementary School. Nona comes along as his chauffeur.
“I love those kids,” he said. “They’re amazing. I’d like to think they enjoy me, too, but I don’t know.”
Garcia said he hasn’t had a hankering to revisit any of the places he touched upon while serving in the war — besides, that is, Hawaii, which he has since visited. He hasn’t dwelled on his experience nor can he attribute the good things throughout his life to it, he said, except perhaps helping him build a firm foundation of character.
“I’m not sure that it did a lot. Just the fact that it made me independent, probably,” he said. “I was glad to be able to serve.”
As for that life he’s built since, Garcia counts himself blessed.
“I’m thankful that I’m still here and I still have my marbles and I still have my wife with me,” he said. “We’ve had a happy life together. We’ve had a good life.”