Editor's note: In honor of the centennial celebration of naval aviation, The Daily Transcript will be running a series of articles focusing on naval aviators and their leadership and management skills. The following is another article in the series.
Not many men can say baseball legend Ted Williams was their wingman, but Col. Marvin "Keith" Hollenbeck can.
The 89-year-old also piloted the first U.S. plane to land on Iwo Jima, used a Death Star assault-style maneuver to shoot bombs into a tunnel and needs two hands to count the number of times he almost died in fiery plane crashes.
Hollenbeck spent 22 years as a Marine Corps pilot, serving in both World War II and the Korean War, and flying missions to China in between. After retiring from the service, he built a career at the Chula Vista-based aeronautics manufacturer Rohr Inc., and made his home in San Diego.
His life is strung together on near misses. Or, as he puts it, "I'm alive only by the grace of the good Lord."
But his 89 years have also been adorned with admirable aviation achievements, including a Distinguished Flying Cross with two gold stars and an Air Medal with a silver star and three gold stars, and personal successes. Despite his age, Hollenbeck, a widower for the past six years, lives only with his dog Toby in a tidy house on Mount Soledad. He has a cheerful nature, quick wit and amazing war stories to tell.
From a young age, Hollenbeck said he "had that yearning to be a pilot," and so he was already enrolled in a commercial airline flight school when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Knowing he would be drafted into the army -- "I didn't want any part of that," he said -- Hollenbeck decided instead to enlist in the Navy as an aviation cadet.
In 1942 he graduated from naval flight academy, and because he was in the top 10 percent of the class, was allowed to choose whether to join the Navy or Marine Corps.
He chose the Marine Corps because "it had a better reputation, and I wanted to be the best," he said.
Hollenbeck was sent to what was then Camp Kearny, now Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. Soon enough he was at the controls of a Curtis Commando R5C transport plane with instructions to pick up wounded men from Polillo Island in the Philippines. It was there that he had one of his many brushes with death.
After landing on the island, Hollenbeck waited while wounded soldiers were loaded onto his plane.
"I saw a Japanese Zero fighter plane sitting not too far away, and I was real curious to know what kind of instruments they have in the cockpit," he said. "I walked over, climbed up on the wing and was looking in the cockpit when a sniper raised out of a hole and shot at me.
"How he missed me was unbelievable, but I got the heck out of there in a hurry."
Next, Hollenbeck was moved to Guam to prepare for the Iwo Jima invasion.
"I was lucky or unlucky, depending on how you look at it, to fly the first airplane in," he said.
There he again skirted disaster, landing a plane carrying 8,000 extra pounds of fuel and ammunition on an undersized runway 800 feet from enemy lines.
"When I landed, I was going so fast I thought I was going to hit the end of the runway for sure, so I released the left brakes and ground the plane into loops," he said. "I went around one and a half times before I stopped."
Hollenbeck's eyes glimmered as he recalled the details of this flying feat.
"The landing gear was not stressed for side motion, and with all that extra weight in the plane and the centripetal force, it's a wonder it didn't shear off cold," he said. "But I got away with it."
Hollenbeck was back in the United States when the war ended, but he did not stay there for long. He flew 70-hour transport flights from Hawaii to China and then shipped off to serve in the Korean War. Wanting to expand his experience beyond transport planes, Hollenbeck convinced a superior to transfer him to the K-3 base in Korea to fly F9F Panther jets.
Shortly before Hollenbeck's tour ended, Ted Williams, fresh off a season with the Boston Red Sox where he hit a .318 average, 30 home runs and 126 RBIs, joined the squadron. As luck would have it, Williams was assigned as Hollenbeck's wingman for his first flight across the bomb line.
"I said, 'Ted, I don't care whether you hit the target or not, I just want you to get home safe," Hollenbeck said.
He told the baseball star that when he saw Hollenbeck's airplane release its bombs to drop his immediately and pull out. They flew in and Hollenbeck dropped his bombs, but as he came off the target, he could not see Williams.
"I kept looking in my rear view mirror for him, but I couldn't see anybody," he said. "Finally I couldn't stand it any longer, so I called on the radio for my division to check in. But Williams didn't come on."
Hollenbeck then learned Williams was headed the wrong direction, his radio was out and his plane was streaming fuel.
He flew down to Williams' plane and positioned himself on the outside of his wing to guide him back to the base. But when Williams went to put his landing gear down, his wheels did not fully release. The tower called to tell him, but his radio was out.
"I said, 'He's not going to make it,'" Hollenbeck said. "I wanted him to eject, but I couldn't get his attention. Then I thought, I'll bump his wing tip to get his attention, but I thought better of it because it might just flip his plane all the way over."
Williams came in for a landing -- far too fast, Hollenbeck said -- and without functioning wheels his plane hit the concrete runway on its belly.
"Immediately there was a fire two stories high following his airplane," Hollenbeck said. "He ejected the canopy, but it got hotter than hell in the cockpit, so he jumps out with his parachute on and leaps off the wing.
"At the end, his only injury was a bruised shoulder. He was really lucky to get away with it. It was a brand new airplane, and it was destroyed."
Hollenbeck then flew missions to destroy trains transporting enemy military equipment. The trains would hide in tunnels and only move on dark moonless nights, but Hollenbeck said the army's intelligence told them where the trains were stowed.
To blow up the trains, U.S. fighter jets had to run flight patterns that sound like those of the X-Wings in "Star Wars." They were to fly low along the track straight toward the mouth of the tunnel, wait until they were seconds away from crashing into the tunnel, drop their bombs and pull up along the mountain's side.
"They're protecting that tunnel with everything they have, so when you go in, they're shooting at you with everything they've got," Hollenbeck said. "You go in as fast as you can, drop your bombs, hopefully get them in the tunnel and then you get out of there as fast as you can."
Once again, Hollenbeck survived -- barely. On his first attempt, the bombs missed the tunnel's mouth and ricocheted up the side of the mountain in the direction he was flying.
"When the bombs exploded I got a little jolt, but it's a miracle I didn't get any shrapnel," he said.
In 1964, after 22 years of service, Hollenbeck retired and went to work at Rohr because he had met -- and married -- Jean Rohr, the owner's daughter. He moved up from an assistant position to contract manager.
Now the accomplished aviator is sitting back and counting his blessings. He said he is lucky not just because of the near misses he survived, but because of the life he has built.
And his long military career and death brushes have not squashed his sense of humor. Or maybe they have.
"Do you know what the 14th and 15th letters of the alphabet spell?" he likes to ask. "No."