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Stories of Honor

Stories of Honor - Don Munoz: Kamikaze survivor and a veteran of two major wars

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The Imperial Japanese Army’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 not only marked the beginning of the United States’ entry into World War II, it marked Don Munoz’ too.

The Santa Maria native enlisted in the Navy in January 1943 when he was only 17 years old.

“I joined the Navy because I didn’t want to march in the Army,” Munoz said. “Had I waited, I would’ve been drafted.”

At 93 years old, Munoz is one of the last Americans alive who served in both World War II and the Korean War. He has trouble hearing in his left ear due to a kamikaze attack on his ship during the Battle of Okinawa, but recalls the event like it was yesterday.

After boot camp in San Diego, Munoz went to radioman school for five months before getting orders to the USS Zellars (DD-777), which was part of the Navy’s storied Tin Can fleet.

When Munoz received his orders, the Zellars was a brand new ship still being built in Seattle. In July 1944, after the ship was finally commissioned, the Zellars made a series of sea trials along the West Coast and in Hawaii in preparation for war.

From Pearl Harbor, the Zellars made its way to the Western Pacific in March 1945, just before its first combat mission to the Battle of Okinawa, which began on April 1 and lasted for 82 days.

The battle was nicknamed the “typhoon of steel,” signifying its intensity. It was one of the deadliest battles for U.S. troops in World War II, second only to the Battle of the Bulge. The battle was also the largest amphibious assault during the war and the Imperial Japanese Army had dramatically stepped up its use of kamikaze attacks on Allied forces.

Kamikazes were suicide attacks by Japanese pilots who flew their planes into Allied ships. According to Munoz, bombs were welded to the planes, effectively turning them into guided missiles. Kamikaze attacks by the Japanese increased towards the end of the war.

The Zellars was bombarding the Japanese island with 5-inch rounds when kamikazes targeted the ship. Sailors on the Zellars downed two kamikazes before the third one hit, according to Munoz.

Munoz was sitting in the radio shack when the Japanese airplane struck mid-ship, going from port to starboard right through the mess hall followed by a thundering explosion that blew out his hearing. The plane hit close to the ammunition locker.

“We were worried about our ammo exploding then sinking our ship,” Munoz said. “They hit us dead center.”

According to the Los Angeles Examiner, the attack left a 31-foot hole in the side of the steel ship, killed 40 sailors and injured dozens more.

The ship limped into nearby Kerama Retto island where it was temporarily fixed before steaming its way back to Los Angeles. The ship was eventually put back into service but that was the end of the war for Munoz. The Zellars was decommissioned in 1971 and sold to Iran.

Within months of V-J Day (the day Japan surrendered), the Zellars took Munoz through the Panama Canal to Navy Day in New York City, which welcomed U.S. service members returning home from the war. From there, Munoz hit ports like Guantanamo Bay and Rio De Janeiro, having a good time in port like Navy squids (a slang term for sailors) are prone to do.

Munoz was released from active duty in mid-1946 and entered the reserves. Then the Korean War started less than four years later.

“Korea came along and I got nailed,” Munoz said, meaning he was called back into active duty. He added that radio operators like himself were a critical need.

Instead of serving on the Korean peninsula, Munoz received orders to Adak, Alaska, a lonely outpost in the far western portion of the Aleutian Islands.

“It was cold and there was no sun,” Munoz said. “I was glad I didn’t experience what I had in the first [war].”

While all the action during the three-year war occurred on the Korean Peninsula, the war itself received little attention and is often referred to as the “Forgotten War.”

The Korean War received the moniker because Americans quickly lost interest when didn’t produce the same level of mobilization in the first few months seen in the previous war, according to North Carolina-based researcher Melinda Pash.

Munoz was in Alaska from September 1950 to January 1952 before coming home. The U.S. never formally declared war on North Korea and in 1953 the conflict ended in a stalemate, which persists to this day.

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Munoz returned home and joined his father, who made his son a partner in his gas station business that switched to various locations throughout the Santa Maria Valley, eventually ending up at the corner of Bradley Road and Clark Avenue in Orcutt, where the Union 76 gas station currently resides.

He went on to expand his family, having four kids and nearly half a dozen grandchildren.

Although he can’t travel much these days, Munoz still gets invites to crew reunions to relive the voyages made possible with a ship like the Zellars.

“I think the best part of being in the Navy was being on Tin Can,” Munoz said.

101419 Don Munoz Stories of Honor 06.jpg

Santa Maria resident and U.S. Navy veteran Don Munoz talks about a kamikaze attack on his ship during WWII.

Veterans Day Series: Go through this collection of our 'Stories of Honor' profiles

'Stories of Honor' is a series spotlighting veterans on the Central Coast, their lives, and their contributions to our country. Take a look through this collection of stories and get to know some of the everyday heroes in our community. The special print edition of this series is available in Sunday's newspaper.                                                                          

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101419 Don Munoz Stories of Honor 01.jpg

Santa Maria resident and U.S. Navy veteran Don Munoz talks about a kamikaze attack on his ship during WWII.

101419 Don Munoz Stories of Honor 05.jpg

U.S. Navy sailors stand on the deck of the USS Zellars destroyer after a 1945 kamikaze attack during World War II.

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Santa Maria resident and U.S. Navy veteran Don Munoz, show with a service photo, talks about his experiences during WWII and the Korean War.

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