In World War II, Doniphan “Don” Shelton helped pioneer aircraft carrier night landings by holding a dustpan and flashlight to illuminate the runway. Seven decades later, motorcycle headlights lit up the retired rear admiral’s 99th birthday.
In the Del Mar hills Friday, dozens of cars carrying friends and members of San Diego Veterans Coalition, American Legion Post 416 and Honor Flight San Diego held signs and honked horns to celebrate the famed veteran.
“Everybody knows my dad, Adm. Shelton, so there’s going to be a lot of people,” said daughter Donna Kacmarcik. “Once the shock wears off, he’s going to love all these people coming by. I think he’s going to be thrilled.”
Afterward, Shelton admitted that at first he was “stumped,” but thought the birthday celebration was “something else… This is great.”
Sitting in a wheelchair in front of his house, Shelton waved an American flag, blew kisses and thanked people for coming by.
His daughter dismissed his wish not to make a “big hullabaloo” about his birthday.
Vehicles were decorated in birthday and Hawaiian themes and drivers waved American flags while a trumpeter played Navy and patriotic songs.
“He’s the most selfless man,” said C.J. Machado, a veteran advocate and photojournalist who organized the birthday surprise.
“He’s the perfect example of the Greatest Generation,” she said. “That’s why it’s important to do this today because he would never ever boast about himself. And he’s accomplished so much for naval aviation.”
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Machado also said he is one of 200 veterans honored as a Golden Eagle, a distinction given to early naval aviators who pioneered and provided leadership for the development of the military aviation force.
Born May 22, 1921, in Kansas City, Missouri, Shelton enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1939 and trained at the Naval Training Center in San Diego from August to October of that year.
In his 40 years, 2 months, 27 days, 3 hours in the Navy, he flew 4,000 hours as a combat and test pilot, according to one biography.
He served on the battleships USS New Mexico and USS California. Friday served in combat tours in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War from 1944 to 1969.
In World War II, while serving on the USS St. Louis, Shelton survived four Kamikaze direct hits in the Battle for Leyte Gulf.
His last naval assignment before retiring in 1979 was supervising operations for Project New Life, the processing of 43,000 evacuees and refugees from South Vietnam through Subic Bay.
At Shelton’s 99th birthday celebration, close friend Rolf Ohnstad said he was in absolute awe of Shelton.
He’s one of “the finest naval aviators I’ve ever known,” said the former Navy pilot from Vietnam.