When the airmen of Navy Patrol Bombing Squadron VPB-117, known as the Blue Raiders, were training at Naval Air Station Miramar nearly 70 years ago, the area was almost nothing like it is today.
The base was then Camp Kearney, a Navy station, and the sprawl of San Diego had yet to reach the breezy plateaus where young pilots were preparing for intense combat over the South Pacific.
“At Camp Kearney, there wasn’t much out there at that point,” said Robert Owens, one of the surviving members of the heavily decorated squadron that carried out key missions in the Pacific during World War II. “It was pretty much out in the sticks.”
On Wednesday, the veterans of VPB-117 who can make the trip will reunite where the unit began, at what is now Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.
Organized by four children of the men who served in the unit, the reunion is the latest —- and perhaps the last —- for a tight-knit squadron that received the Presidential Unit Citation in 1947 for its bravery during World War II.
Mary Mount, whose father-in-law was a member of the squadron, said that she and her husband, Glenn, became involved with the annual reunions when they started looking into the unit’s history.
“They are scattered all over the United States —- the ones who usually attend the reunions now are from Florida, New Jersey,” Mount said of the unit’s veterans. “We’ve got three in California —- in fact, one lives in San Diego —- and they’ll all be at the reunion.”
While the veterans are touring the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum off Miramar Road on Wednesday, Mount said she and the other organizers hope to surprise them by unveiling a display of the unit’s most prized honor, the presidential citation, which was once assumed to be lost.
“The squadron has been trying to locate the plaque for years,” she said. “One day, I got a hold of Steve Smith at the museum, and he said, ‘You know, I remember seeing that plaque. I think it’s in our warehouse.’ A couple of days later he called me, and he had found the plaque.”
Mount said it will be on display outside the museum, and added that “the whole tour was (organized) to get them there, so they can see the plaque.”
In the June 1947 edition of Naval Aviation News, a reporter wrote that “VPB-117 destroyed thousands of tons of (enemy) shipping, damaged shore installations and shot down 63 enemy planes.
“It ran 1,000-mile searches, patrols for the Third Fleet, shore bombardment spotting missions, night shipping strikes and sub protection.”
In his personal, written recollection of serving in the unit, Owens recalled how the squadron’s “war-weary” PB4Y-1 Liberators (the Navy’s version of the B-24) were still in use, flying 10- to 14-hour patrols over Vietnam.
For Owens, who joined the Blue Raiders in the Pacific near the end of the war as a fresh, 19-year-old replacement gunner, the sights and sounds of aircraft in Miramar next week will be nothing out of the ordinary.
“I fly that every chance I get —- at least once a week,” he said. “At age 85, I figure that’s doing pretty good.”