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Chris Smith: These two WWII vets took their first breaths in 1919

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Jack Miller and Ed St. Germain don’t know each other. But, in a way, they’re brothers.

Both are 100 years old. That shared distinction places them among the oldest of us who walk about feeling blessed to have Sonoma County as our home.

St. Germain and Miller both are happy guys, and both belong to the diminishing corps of veterans of World War II. Neither wished for war but both, having bonded with their fellows in uniform and come out alive and in one piece, consider their military service a potent, essential aspect of their long lives.

Miller is a survivor also, narrowly, of the Tubbs fire.

“It was hell,” the lean and bright-eyed vet said at his newish home in a retirement apartment complex in Rohnert Park. “It’s hard to get over it.”

Miller and his wife, Betty, whom he met in 1945 during a leave from the war in the Pacific, made their home on Santa Rosa’s Coffey Lane in 1952.

They’d been living in Southern California when Betty’s folks settled in Sonoma County and bought more than 80 acres of bare land north and east of what would become Coffey Park.

“We came up to visit them,” Betty recalled, “and my dad sold of 20 acres.”

Betty and Jack Miller built on that land a house that would be their family home until the night of flames in October, 2017. Jack built also a large shop and went to work as proprietor of Miller Electric. He’d wire many of the homes built later on the east side of Coffey Lane.

In the war, Jack had served in the Electrical and Telephone Division of the Signal Corps. While stationed for a time in Australia, he was responsible for stringing phone lines to be used by Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Some of Miller’s most prized memories from the war involve action not on the battlefield but the ball field.

In his teens and 20s he was quite the baseball player. While in Brisbane he played third base, becoming a sensation when he turned four double plays in one game.

Seventy-two years after the war, Miller came under attack on the first night of the Tubbs fire. Holding his hands about eight inches apart, he said, “Fireballs about that big were flyin’ through the air.”

Rousted by a firefighter from their Coffey Lane home of nearly 65 fires, Miller and his wife fled without even their wallets. When at last they were able to return to the devastated neighborhood, they saw that Jack Miller’s 2,000-square-foot shop burned along with the house.

“I didn’t even get a screwdriver out of there,” the former electrician and Army Signal Corpsman said.

But he and Betty escaped with their lives, and they’ve adapted pretty well to the apartment in Rohnert Park. There was a big party in community room for Jack’s 100th birthday in early October.

He had a relative who lived to age 107, to it’s his aim to make it to 108.

“After that,” said the century-old vet, “I don’t give a damn.”

HHHHHH

ED ST. GERMAINE knew naught about airplanes as he was growing up in Iowa.

Upon enlisting in the Army in late 1942, he was drawn to the air corps. He trained in a bi-plane, showed he had the chops and after earning his wings went to Europe with the 36th Fighter Group.

As a 1st lieutenant in his mid-20s, St. Germaine attacked German targets while flying fast and low in a Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bomber.

His valor earned him commendations that included the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Citations of Bravery from Belgium, liberated amid the Battle of the Bulge. The Flying Cross came to St. Germain him for what he did over Germany on April 17, 1945:

His squadron had twice strafed a German airfield when it was attacked by enemy fighters. As he fought back, St. Germain noticed that a second P-47 had been hit and badly damaged.

He flew alongside his fellow pilot and signaled that he would lead him back to base. Three times, German fighters attacked and, “employing great skill,” according to the citation, St. Germain fended them off in defense of his comrade.

As fine a pilot as St. Germain was, his son, Ken, recalled him telling of the time he was about to take off from a British airfield and a member of ground crew asked which direction he should spin the propeller.

His father “had no idea which way that prop turned,” the younger St. Germain said.

Following the war, Ed St. Germain stayed on in the Army Reserve. Higher ups came to him and him to return to the air, in a jet.

He told them, “Oh, no. I’m not flying one of those damned things!”

St. Germain worked a civilian career with the Defense Department, then retired to Rohnert Park and, at age 55, learned to play golf. He became very good at the game.

At 100 years old, the new resident of a retirement complex in Santa Rosa is no longer able to play. But he loves it when his son takes him for a drive and cruises slowly by his old stomping grounds, Rohnert Park’s Mountain Shadows Golf Course.

HHHHHH

ON VETERANS DAY, the 55-and-old community of Oakmont will honor two WWII veterans slightly younger than centenarians Jack Miller and Ed St. Germain.

The VIPs at a noon observance at the Berger Center will be Brooks Marlar, who’s 97, and Michael Cannon, 95.

Marlar served in the Navy and was a chief petty officer under Admiral William “Bull” Halsey. Today Marlar is one of the last remaining servicemembers present on the battleship USS Missouri when delegates of the Empire of Japan signed the papers of surrender on Sept. 2, 1945.

And Cannon: He was an Army Air Corps lieutenant who, like St. Germain, flew a P-47 and somehow managed to complete 48 combat mission in Europe without himself or his plane being scratched.

The Veterans Day is open to Oakmont residents and their guests.

You can contact Chris Smith at 707 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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