For Julius Woods, his World War II service as a teenager in the U.S. Navy feels like another time, another life. So many years later, he didn’t expect it to be a big deal to anyone. Too much going on in the present century, and all that.
But somebody — actually a few somebodies — became intrigued by his participation in the war, and now Honor Flight South Florida is flying him and 77 other veterans to Washington on Oct. 29 to visit the World War II Memorial and see the changing of the guard at Arlington Cemetery.
The trip has come as a surprise.
“All along you go around being a nobody and then somebody takes the time to notice,” Woods said. “It makes you feel real good.”
Woods is 90 years old but easily looks a decade younger. He’s still in uniform — as a security guard at Belle Meade Island off Biscayne Boulevard, where he shows up for work at 6 a.m. and puts in a full eight-hour day. In the afternoons he has “a second job, but it doesn’t pay,” he jokes: He picks up his great-grandkids after school as needed.
Denise Palacios, a Belle Meade resident, nominated Woods for Honor Flight South Florida, a nonprofit that flies veterans to the nation’s capital to visit memorials for free. The residents have raised enough money to pay for his daughter to accompany him, too. After Palacios heard about Woods’ war experience from her neighborhood running buddies, she decided to nominate him for Honor Flight. She wanted him to get his due.
“He’s very special and such a hero,” Palacios said. “He deserves to be honored in every which way possible.”
Woods is taking the attention in stride, though he does enjoy showing off the special Honor Flight T-shirt and tote bag that he plans to wear when he boards the charter flight at Miami International Airport. Among the other veterans on the trip: a 100-year-old who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and two vets who are 98.
Honor Flight began in May 2005, when six small planes flew from Springfield, Ohio, to Washington with 12 veterans aboard. In less than a dozen years, the idea blossomed to include an Honor Flight Network of 130 hubs. About 160,000 war veterans have been flown to Washington; the South Florida hub, which serves from Monroe County to Boca Raton, sponsors three flights a year.
“It’s a recognition of their heroism,” said Beverley Engler, local Honor Flight manager of communications. “These were just humble guys who went out and literally saved the world. It’s quite amazing what they did, and they deserve the recognition.”
Woods doesn’t think of himself as a hero. He says he did what he had to do. Son of a sharecropper, Woods was living with his aunt and two younger siblings in Daytona Beach when he voluntarily enlisted soon after Pearl Harbor. He hoped for the Army. Instead he was sent to the Navy.
Even now he shakes his head at that assignment: “I was afraid of the water.”
At the time, the Navy mirrored society at large: It was segregated. When Woods was sent on to the USS Mervine, a destroyer tasked with escorting troops to the European war theater, “all that was left for us [blacks] were the jobs of cooks or serving the officers.”
The captain, however, insisted that everyone regardless of race or rank receive training, and he learned to fire the 20mm and 40mm guns. Woods didn’t really know how to cook, but during the 30-day crossing, he managed to learn a trick or two.
“They weren’t too fussy,” he said of his fellow sailors. “They just ate what you cooked.”
When he returned stateside, he was immediately assigned to the USS Van Valkenburgh, where he served in the Pacific until the end of the war. As a Seaman First Class, “I had my bars and I was really excited, but I was also scared to death.”
Among its duties, the Van Valkenburgh took part in the battle of Iwo Jima, bombarding and firing its guns as Marines landed and eventually wrested control of the island from the Japanese.
“I was in the gun room pushing up the ammunition, just pushing it up [on deck],” he said. “There was a lot of noise and movement, all the guns overhead, but you had your orders and that’s what you did.”
After the war he returned to Florida. Segregation remained the rule, a bitter pill to swallow for the black troops who had fought for their country. Woods remembers how a teller called the police when he tried to get change for a $50 bill at his local bank. When two officers showed up and found out what had happened, one of them, also freshly out of the service, told Woods he shouldn’t put up with the discrimination. Escorted by the police, Woods closed his account and opened another one in a bank across the street.
“But it really hurt me,” he admitted. “On the ship everyone was like brothers, You looked out for each other.”
Woods went on to trade school on the GI bill. He moved to Miami, married, had two children and bought a three-bedroom house in what is now Miami Gardens. He did a brisk business repairing TVs and automobile radios before becoming a security guard and then a plant manager for a plate glass company. In retirement, bored and hoping for extra income, he returned to security work.
When people ask him how he stays so upbeat and young-looking, he is quick with his answer. “Anything I can do something about, I do. If I can’t, I don’t carry it on my shoulders.”