Those We Honor Reflect Our Values

June 24, 2020

Many years ago, while transiting Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, my son Brett asked: “Who was O’Hare and why was the airport named after him?” I told him he was probably a mayor of Chicago or some other political figure. Not to let his question go unanswered, I looked up this fellow named O’Hare. Turns out Edward “Butch” O’Hare was a Naval Academy graduate who in 1942 single-handedly attacked a formation of nine enemy bombers (shooting down five) as they approached his aircraft carrier. For this act of courage Lt.Cmdr. O’Hare -- the Navy’s first ace – was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Roosevelt. After a year of non-combat assignments in the US, O’Hare requested a return to the Pacific Theater where he earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses but was also killed in action in 1943.

When a young girl asks her mother upon arrival in Orange County “Who is John Wayne?” and “why is the airport named after him?” – What will she learn?  When either she or her mother googles the name “John Wayne” they will be hard pressed to answer the second question. What they’ll discover is that John Wayne died 41 years ago and was an actor who was most famous for his roles in Westerns and war movies, although in real life he was never a cowboy nor served in uniform. Among other disturbing facts she will also discover that he was a self-proclaimed white supremacist.

The John Wayne Airport, originally known as the Orange County Airport, is built on what was once known as the Santa Ana Army Air Base – one of the largest training bases in the country for World War II Army/Air Force personnel. It was renamed John Wayne Airport in 1979. In addition to this huge Army Air Base, it was not long ago that Orange County was also home to two Marine Corps Air Bases in El Toro and Tustin. Those air bases have since been converted to other uses, but the Naval Weapons Station in Seal Beach still proudly supports our national defense today. The men and women who served and stayed here in Orange County have many heroes among them.

Among the thousands of heroes who have called Orange County home there are several examples of sacrifice worthy of having their names immortalized on an airport.

Long-time Buena Park resident Walter Ehlers and his older brother Roland served in the same unit and fought together in North Africa and Sicily. They also landed in the first waves on D-Day. After fighting his way off the beach -- Staff Sergeant Walter Ehlers and his squad came under heavy fire. Ehlers was wounded while covering the squad’s retreat but managed to carry one of his soldiers to safety. He then ran back through enemy fire to retrieve another squadmate. Despite his wounds he refused to be evacuated and continued the fight. One-month later, Ehlers learned his brother Roland was stuck by a mortar and killed on Omaha Beach.

For his courage Walter Ehlers was awarded the Medal of Honor and a battlefield commission.

Garden Grove resident Tibor Rubin was born in Hungary. At age 13, he and his family were sent to Nazi concentration camps. He survived Mauthausen but never saw his parents or sister again. He emigrated to America in 1949 and tried to enlist in the Army.  Unfortunately, he couldn’t pass the English test and failed. Two years later, with a little help from two friends, he passed the entrance test and soon found himself in the midst of the Korean War.

According to several witnesses, Rubin – alone -- defended the retreat of his unit for 24 hours against waves of North Korean soldiers. For his heroic stand Rubin was recommended for the Medal of Honor multiple times. According to several of his comrades, these recommendations were stifled because of an anti-Semitic officer in his chain of command.

Later, after most of Rubin’s regiment had been killed or wounded, his unit surrendered. Rubin was severely wounded and captured along with his squadmates. “Faced with constant hunger, filth, and disease, most of the GIs simply gave up. ‘No one wanted to help anyone. Everybody was for himself’, wrote Leo A. Cormier Jr., a former sergeant and POW. The exception was Rubin. Almost every evening, Rubin would sneak out of the prison camp to steal food from the Chinese and North Korean supply depots, knowing that he would be shot if caught. "He shared the food evenly among the GIs," Cormier wrote. "He also took care of us, nursed us, carried us to the latrine...he did many good deeds, which he told us were “mitzvahs” in the Jewish tradition... he was a very religious Jew and helping his fellow men was the most important thing to him.” The survivors of the prison war camp credited Rubin with keeping them alive and saving at least 40 American soldiers.

In 2005, over 50 years after his discharge, Rubin was finally awarded the Medal of Honor.

Among our more recent heroes is Navy SEAL Master-at-Arms Second Class Michael Monsoor. Mike, as he was known to his friends, played tight end on the football team at Garden Grove High. Even in high school he was an inspiration to his teammates. Of those he inspired was Garden Grove's current head football coach, Ricardo Cepeda, who was Monsoor’s teammate in the late 90s. "One of the hardest working guys in the team... hearing that he [sacrificed his life] for his friends, you know, we were not surprised," Cepeda shared.

Monsoor enlisted in the Navy just before 9/11 and graduated from BUD/S (the rigorous SEAL qualification course) in 2005. Shortly thereafter, he was deployed to Iraq. During the Battle of Ramadi, Monsoor served as a communicator and machine-gunner on patrols. He carried 100 pounds of gear in temperatures often exceeding 100 degrees. He took a lead position to protect the platoon from frontal assault. Monsoor’s team was frequently involved in combat with insurgent fighters.

During an engagement on May 9, 2006, Monsoor ran into a street while under continuous insurgent gunfire to rescue an injured comrade. For this and other acts of bravery, Monsoor was awarded the Silver Star and a Bronze Star.

Four months later Monsoor's platoon engaged insurgents in a firefight in Ar-Ramadi.  Monsoor, three SEALs, and three Iraqi Army soldiers took up a defensive position on a rooftop. A grenade was thrown onto the rooftop by an insurgent on the street below. The grenade hit Monsoor in the chest and fell onto the floor. Immediately, Monsoor yelled "Grenade!" and jumped onto the grenade, covering it with his body. The grenade exploded seconds later and Monsoor’s body absorbed most of the force of the blast. Monsoor was severely wounded and died 30 minutes later. Two other SEALs next to him at the time were injured by the explosion but survived.

Monsoor was protecting other SEALs, two of whom were 15 feet away from him. His position on the rooftop made him the only SEAL with quick access to an escape route. In other words, he could have escaped and saved himself but chose to sacrifice his life to protect his fellow SEALs and the Iraqi soldiers.

Those we honor reflect our values. When the millions of travelers arrive in Orange County, they should know what we honor, what values we hold, who we think is a role model. We should be proud to tell our children who our airport is named after, and why.



Senator Thomas Umberg represents the 34th Senate District, which includes the cities of Anaheim, Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach, Garden Grove, Long Beach, Los Alamitos,
Midway City, Orange, Santa Ana, Seal Beach, and Westminster. Umberg is a retired
U.S. Army Colonel and former federal prosecutor. He and his wife,
Brigadier General Robin Umberg, USA (ret.), live in Orange County.