VIDEO: Master Chief Ernie MitchellVideo and Editing by Lawrence Dorsey
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Wearing “cool uniforms with bell bottom pants,” and traveling to tropical locales, Ernie Mitchell’s career with the Navy afforded him the chance to see the world and record adventures, while serving his country for 26 years.
Sitting at his church, Pembroke Christian, to tell his story, Mitchell, 69, smiles often and laughs as he recalls the people he’s met and places traveled.
Of course, with anyone who served during the Vietnam War, there were tough, dangerous times. In describing Vietnam, Mitchell said the views from the coast were often beautiful: white sand beaches, palm trees and jutting mountains. But nights saw carpet bombing, rocket and mortar fire.
At one point, while his ship was in danger of being attacked, Mitchell said “To me, that was the awakening that this was not a cruise.”
Mitchell grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, and after graduating from high school, studied business at Youngstown State for two years. It was a time when many American lives were lost in Vietnam, including a classmate of Mitchell’s since grade school.
“Even though I had a 2-S, student deferment, it didn't seem right that others were serving, and us college kids didn't have to,” Mitchell reasoned. “I went to the Army recruiter to volunteer. He said with my college time I should go into the Navy or Air Force. He walked me to the Navy recruiter and I joined,” he said.
Mitchell’s first assignment surprised him. He expected Vietnam, but instead was ordered to Morocco, a place he admits he needed to “go to the base library to look up where it was.”
There, with his business background, he was put in charge of supplies. He called it “a natural fit,” because he had worked at his parents’ paint store and paint contracting business since he was 12.
“The Seabees were so pleased with how I fixed their supply store, they had me awarded sailor of the month for the base. I was the first E-3,” Mitchell said with a smile.
One of his strongest memories from Morocco came one morning. “We were told open your eyes, and button your lips, there were reports of Russian spies around,” he said.
“That evening we headed to our favorite little watering hole. It always had cold beer, and girls, but that night were two men in black suits and ties buying drinks for everyone.
“I thought, ‘why don’t you just wear name tags saying: Hi, I’m your local Russian spy,’” Mitchell laughed.
He said the New York Times later reported the U.S. has a secret base in Morocco, but Mitchell said, “We were never told that.”
After 15 months there, Mitchell was transferred to a destroyer escort in Long Beach, Calif. That's where he met his future wife.
“I told a shipmate as a 22-year-old American male, I hadn't been on a date in two years. We decided to go to Disneyland, like any good sailor looking for a blond, California surfer girl,” he smiled. “There was a dance in Tomorrowland. Across from us was a group of girls having fun. One petite blond was be-bopping. That was the one!”
Mitchell said he asked her to dance. “Her name is Virginia, but she goes by the name of Ginger. The funny part is that her name was Ginger Rogers.”
They married, raised three children and have been together for 46 years.
From California, Mitchell’s ship was assigned to the Vietnam coast to provide shore bombardment, small boat inspections and carrier guard duty.
On their first morning there, as the ship sailed into Da Nang Harbor to refuel, Mitchell recalled jets flying out of low clouds and dropping bombs on the huge fuel tanks in front of them.
“Over the ship’s intercom, the captain hollered, they just blew the fuel depot … we're getting the hell out of here,” Mitchell said.
“From that day till the end of the war, we participated in close-in gun fire support for the ground troops,” he said.
“Those were the true heroes,” Mitchell said, referring to the ground troops.
After four years, Mitchell’s enlistment was up.
“For four days we put on our dress whites, and checked in the terminal, only to be told, every flight was reserved for the POWs released from captivity,” he said.
“At that time, America had no idea how many (POWs) there were, and especially how they were severely tortured. We were more than honored to have them return first.”
After discharge, Mitchell moved his family to Kissimmee, Fla., where his father and brothers had set up a painting business. After two years, he returned to college at University of Central Florida to complete his degree in business management.
“For extra money, beyond my part-time job, I joined the Navy Reserve,” he said, serving as a drilling Reservist for 22 years.
For years he handled Navy cargo and advanced to master chief petty officer (E-9), becoming the first command master chief of the 20-year-old unit, another honor Mitchell is proud of. Theirs was the first unit in the Jacksonville area to be mobilized for Operation Desert Storm, he added.
Working jointly with the Air Force, Mitchell’s unit was sent to Guam to load 500- and 750-pound bombs left from the Vietnam War onto ships for transport to the Middle East.
Mitchell retired from the Navy in 1997.
He worked for two defense electronic contractors in Florida, including as a purchasing manager for Sparton Electronics, a manufacturer of sonabouys for the Navy.
Mitchell and his wife moved to Pembroke in 2009 to be closer to their son Lee, who operates a backyard living business there. Their daughter, Julie, a high school teacher, lives in Deltona, Fla. Their youngest son, Dean, is a sales executive in Washington, DC.
It didn’t take long for Mitchell to get involved in his church and the Pembroke community.
He has been commander of the American Legion Post 164 and district junior vice commander of four posts: Pembroke, Claxton, Glennville and Hinesville.
In conjunction with the city of Pembroke, the Legion Post has helped erect 170 crosses and flags in the center of town, honoring veterans. And the Post takes part in flag ceremonies on four patriotic holidays. The next is on Memorial Day.
He also is passionate about youth. He was a Boy Scout in his youth, and works with area Scouts units as a charter representative. He also works with area ROTC students.
He credits his Christian faith (he said he was “saved” at age 30) as the driving force in his life. When asked how he would most like to be remembered, he cited the Bible passage, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, which reads in part:
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.”
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