Once a year, the nation pauses to thank those whose sacrifices have ensured its continued existence. As this year’s Veterans Day approached, three local men shared stories of their service.
Though John Mikos, who has lived in Chester for eight years, was in the military for a relatively short time, the experience fundamentally changed his life.
He went on his first flight when he was 14 or 15, he said, and he was hooked on flying. He grew up in Pennsylvania, and felt called to the armed services before joining was entirely legal. “All my buddies were in,” he said, and he wanted to join, too.
“I enlisted and I lied about my age, and they caught me and sent me home for a while,” he said. Once he turned 18, they called him back to the Army Air Corps. “I was just a kid when I went in the service. I grew up there.”
In fact, “The Kid” was his nickname.
“They always called me ‘The Kid’ anyway, because I’m small,” he said.
On June 22, 1945, “The Kid” had been in the service for about a year and was a tail gunner on a B-24; he was preparing for a flight with a crew he didn’t usually fly with.
On takeoff, the plane lost two engines and crashed into a swamp, he said.
“All I remember is the crash,” he said. “Then I woke up in the hospital. … I remember hitting the water.”
Only three members of the crew survived, his wife, Pauline Mikos, said, and each thought he was the lone survivor for a long time. Mikos thought the plane had been shot down until a fellow service member told him what actually happened.
The crash left Mikos in the hospital for well over a year, she said.
“When they brought him here, he was in a body cast from his shoulders down,” she said. Later, he wore braces on his legs.
“I’m lucky I’ve still got them,” said Mikos, who has been in and out of hospitals over the years.
Judge Ernest Gates was in college at Hampden-Sydney when World War II started. He volunteered for the Army Air Corps, he said, but failed his physical because a broken nose he’d suffered playing football had left him with a deviated septum. He then enlisted in the Navy.
Gates said the “big story” of his service was being at the Battle of Okinawa. He was on a ship that was among the first the Kamikaze pilots could see, he said, “so we could warn the other ships.”
His ship was hit, he said, and shrapnel wounded him in the abdomen. He was moved from hospital ship to hospital ship and finally back to the United States. He was in a hospital in San Francisco when the war ended.
“I had a lot of infections,” he said. He was also missing for a long time after the battle before he was ultimately located in Hawaii.
“I feel that my parents suffered more than I did,” he said. “I recognize it now, since I’m a father of six children.”
George Reynolds grew up in New Jersey and attended Rutgers, where he was a member of the ROTC in the reserve officers training corps.
“I went on active duty in 1962 with the intention of serving two years and getting out,” he said. “I ended up staying 20 years.”
His first assignment was in Korea in a unit that supported the Army’s HAWK missile systems. After stints at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., and in advanced officer training and missile training, the Vietnam War was “getting rather heated,” he said.
“My wife, daughter and I were fully expecting to go to Vietnam, and while we waited for the order, we received the call from the Pentagon asking us if we wanted to go to Hawaii,” he said. “There was no decision to be made.”
Off the family went to Hawaii for about two years. “Then came the orders for Vietnam,” in late 1968, he said.
Reynolds recalled several experiences from his time in Vietnam.
“I was out inspecting the guard detail, and I was challenged by one of the guards and asked for a password,” he said. When Reynolds got to the guard, “he had his rifle leveled at me,” he said. “When he calmed down, I inspected the weapon and found the safety off and a round in the chamber. So, it was upsetting.
“Another time we were in a helicopter visiting some supportive units and the tail rotor of the helicopter was shot off and we spiraled down into a rice paddy and dove out of the helicopter as the transmission came into the passenger compartment,” he said. “No one was injured, but we were in the middle of Charlie country.” They established “a perimeter of defense” with handguns and the machine guns from the helicopter, he said.
“Fortunately, we didn’t have to use them and we were extracted in about an hour,” he said.
Reynolds received the Purple Heart after he was struck with shrapnel during a rocket attack. Also, his efforts and those of his unit led to the replacement of more than 4,000 rifle barrels on the M16 weapon, he said.
“So hopefully we saved a few lives with that,” he said.
Mikos and his wife met not long after he returned to the United States; they’ve been married 63 years and they have three children. Though the crash has left an indelible mark on his life, Mikos says he doesn’t regret enlisting at all. He still enjoys seeing the restored B-24s when they visit the area.
“He loves them airplanes,” Pauline Mikos said. “I don’t even think I would look at them if I went through what he went through.”
“I was only a kid, 18 years old, when that happened a long time ago, and I’d fly again if I got the chance,” he said. “If we were at war, I’d volunteer again.”
Gates, who returned to Chesterfield County after law school and ultimately served as a judge for 44 years, has no regrets about serving.
“It is the biggest honor I’ve ever had in my life, to be in the armed forces,” he said. Being in the hospital, and seeing so many people die, he realized how lucky he was to make it home, he said. “They were the heroes. Those that came home were the lucky ones.”
From Vietnam, Reynolds and his family came to Fort Lee, Va. Years later, when it was time to retire, he and his wife, Dorothy, recalled that assignment and chose to return.
“I was very disappointed in the reception the military was receiving” during Vietnam, he said. Some people are more appreciative of veterans now, but “I think there’s maybe a lack of awareness,” he said.
Thanking a veteran is as simple as shaking his or her hand and saying “Thank you,” he said.
“I think that’s one of the best ways,” he said. Veterans, though, need to do their share and let people know about their service, he said.