by lyle e davis
Sometimes you just have to look around your own neighborhood to find a hero or two. They’re all around us. Many of them have gotten on in years. Most have more than a touch of gray to their hair . . . if they have any left. Some walk a bit more slowly . . . not like when they were young and would dash off into adventure.
But they are there. You just have to look. And listen. And ask questions.
I’m ashamed to admit that I have known a hero for about 30 years and only learned within the past few days that he was, and is, a bona fide hero.
Seymour “Sy” Okun had been a neighbor for 20 of those 30 years. He continues to be a friend to this day . . as well as a fellow Kiwanian.
He never volunteered that he was a hero. I had to drag it out of him, bit by bit, piece by piece. I had known that he lost his right eye during World War II but hadn’t known how.
Turns out Sy was a P51 fighter pilot, assigned to fly cover for C-47 cargo aircraft flying “The Burma Hump” in the CBI (China-Burma-India) Theatre of Operations.
It also turns out Sy is an ace. An ace is an honorary title bestowed by fellow fighter pilots on those whose skills are such that they’ve been able to down a minimum of five enemy aircraft in combat. Sy has an official count of seven enemy aircraft killed in combat; but there are many more than that.
“We all had numerous kills that weren’t officially recorded,” he says. “Combat cameras, located in the nose of the aircraft sometimes jam, sometimes are not positioned correctly, sometimes run out of film. Any number of reasons. I knew pilots who had 20 or more kills . . . they didn’t get credit for them all.”
Okun had substantially more than the seven kills credited him but he didn’t want to hazard a guess as to how many. “That was a long time ago,” he says. “Best to just let it be.”
It was on his 48th mission that life changed for Sy Okun.
As usual, he and his fellow aviators flew cover for the C47’s that were flying in supplies from India to aid General Chiang Kai-Shek in his battle with the occupying Japanese forces. And, as usual, there were a number of aerial combat battles as the fleet of P51 Mustangs fought off the Japanese aircraft.
“There was a little known pass in the Himalayas. We just called it 'A-A.' Lots of planes crashed trying to get through that crash . . . but you kinda had to try it. We were constantly flying at 10,000 feet and without oxygen that can get mighty hairy. If we could get through the pass, some of that hairiness would go bye-bye.”
On Okun’s 48th mission he took off from China, heading for India. He was only about 50 miles from his base in India when he and his squadron were jumped by the Japanese fighters. Okun and his squadron were outgunned four planes to one.
“They got me this time,” he said. “There was a lot of battle damage to my aircraft. The most difficult of which was they shot away the motor that controlled my elevators. I couldn’t go up, couldn’t go down in controlled flight. I didn’t drop out of the air like a stone . . . but my plane just kept descending at a steady pace. I was only 50 miles from my airfield so I tried to stretch it. If I had my elevators I think I could have made it . . but I just couldn’t get the aircraft to rise. So I had no choice but to crash land. They had warned us to not parachute out, if we had the option, because the Japanese would rather gleefully behead us, if we were caught." (This was quite common. See photo on front page).
Okun doesn’t remember the crash landing as he was apparently knocked unconscious. “I remember penetrating the canopy of the forest, going through a heavy amount of trees and branches. I’m not sure whether a tree branch got my eye or if I injured it by hitting something within the cockpit. The next thing I remember is waking up in a little village. I was in a great deal of pain, lapsing in and out of consciousness. My right eyeball was on my chest, hanging by shreds of tissue. I learned the village inhabitants were all Sikhs. The Sikhs would tell me to get down, to hide, the Japanese were coming through the village, hunting for me. I did as I was told and the Japanese didn’t find me. I could hear the Japanese going up and down the street, hollering, looking all over for me. I stayed very quiet . . .as did the Sikhs. Had they found me, they would have lopped off my head.”
It was about 12 miles from the site of Sy’s crash-landing to the Sikh Village. It took the Sikhs eight days to transport a badly weakened Sy Okun the 50 miles between their village and his home base in India. Once there he was transported to Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco. They had to remove his right eye. It had been out of its socket too long, the tissue had dried and atrophied and it was impossible to save. He was fitted with an artificial right eye which he wears to this day.
Okun had promised the Sikhs to never tell they had helped him escape the Japanese as the entire village would have been wiped out were the Japanese to learn of their aid to this helpless American flyer.
Okun abided by that promise until just this year. He and his lovely new wife, Marcy, journeyed to Arizona to visit family and, while there, learned of a new Sikh Temple being built. The Okuns visited the temple and Okun made a very generous donation to the Sikhs for having saved his life. It was during this discussion that one of the Sikh members said he remembers his uncle telling of how he and his fellow villagers had saved an American pilots life; how he had lost an eye, and how they spent eight days in transporting him to his home base. Sy’s contact with the Sikh culture had come full circle.
The Sikhs assured Okun that he was now most certainly released from his pledge of secrecy and it was safe to talk about his exploits. They were quite sure the Japanese would no longer retaliate.
The Okuns were treated as though they were royalty. Sy and Marcy were given seats of honor . . . the Sikhs all ate while seated on the temple floor. The Sikhs spoke glowingly of how Okun and his fellow American pilots had done great things for them and for their country . . . and, indeed, world peace. To this day, they are grateful.
While at Letterman Army Hospital, recovering from his eye surgery and his other wounds and ailments, Sy Okun received two very important letters in his life.
The first read:
To you who answered the call of your country and served in its Armed Forces to bring about the total defeat of the enemy, I extend the heartfelt thanks of a grateful Nation. As one of the Nation’s finest, you undertook the most severe task one can be called upon to perform. Because you demonstrated the fortitude, resourcefulness and calm judgment necessary to carry out that task, we now look to you for leadership and example in further exalting our country in peace.
Harry S. Truman
The second read:
I cannot meet you personally to thank you for a job well done; nor can I hope to put in written words the great hope I have for your success in future life.
Together we built the striking force that swept the Luftwaffe from the skies and broke the German power to resist. The total might of that striking force was then unleased upon the Japanese. Although you no longer plan an active military part, the contribution you made to the Air Forces was essential in making us the greatest team in the world.
The ties that bound us under stress of combat must not be broken in peacetime. Together we share the responsibilty for guarding our country in the air. We who stay will never forget the part you have played while in uniform. We know you will continue to play a comparable role as a civilian. As our ways part, let me wish you God speed and the best of luck on your road in life. Our gratitude and respect go with you.
H. H. (Hap) Arnold
Army Air Forces
These two letters are about all that are left form Sy’s memorabilia. A fire in his mother’s attic destroyed most of his other military mementos and awards . . . including his uniforms. He kept himself fit all these years . . . chances are he could still wear his Army Air Corps uniform today. In fact, until just recently when he developed some health issues, Sy would regularly run three to five miles a day. His body is still lean and trim.
Sy remembers another message that meant a lot to him.
“One of the national magazines had done a story about our squadron and the work we had done in escorting the C47 pilots over, around, and through 'the Hump.'" They had told a little of my story in the article and one of the C47 pilots saw it and wrote the editor. He praised the work of the P51 pilots and told of how we saved their bacon more than once . . . in the end, he said, . . . . “Thanks, Sy!”
"That means a lot to me. That this pilot recognized the risks we took, the battles we fought, the risks we accepted, the pains we bore . . . all to complete our mission of safely escorting him and his fellow aviators to deliver supplies safely in China . . and then for him to take the trouble to write the editor, to track me down and thank me . . . you can’t buy a feeling like that. That was special.”
Sy took the admonition from President Truman and General Arnold to heart . . . to continue his leadership role in civilian life. After being medically discharged from the service he enrolled at the University of Buffalo and earned his bachelor’s degree in elecrical engineering. He then went back to work for the federal government. He was at Vandenberg Air Force Base for 30 years. Shortly after retirement he moved to Escondido where he and I became both neighbors and close friends. He’s been active in the DAV (Disabled American Veterans), serving as Commander twice, the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars), the American Legion, post 149, and continues his community leadership and service to this day, being an active member of the Hidden Valley Kiwanis Club of Escondido.
I remember how Sy would often join us an Adult Volunteer in taking kids on hikes. The kids would look on in amazement as Sy would jog and run up to three miles and barely break a sweat. He was in great shape and the kids really admired him. They didn’t realize, nor did I at the time, that we were all in the presence of a major hero from World War II.
Today, Sy lives quietly with his wife, Marcy, in Escondido. He still is a regular most every Tuesday at the Hidden Valley Kiwanis Club of Escondido. In fact, until they read this story, his fellow members will not have been aware of this quiet hero who sits among us.
Chances are there are more heroes among us. We only have to open our ears, open our eyes, and talk with them. Draw them out. Learn from them about what it was really like . . . back in the earlier times that poets and writers like to write about. They’re there. Waiting.