EAST COUNTY — Silence filled the media center Nov. 7 at Braden River High, as wide-eyed students waited to hear what their guest speakers would say next.
“On Dec. 4, 1941, I was just like you,” Richard Kichline said. “I was thinking about what I’d do over the weekend. There was a dance coming up, maybe I’d take a girl. My life was normal, just like yours.”
The World War II veteran, now 88, remembered sitting in a classroom — he was a junior in high school — while hearing the news about Pearl Harbor. He thought his life would never be the same.
He was correct.
Braden River High invited two U.S. Navy veterans to speak to its social studies classes in honor of Veterans Day, so the former soldiers could share their experiences with the youth.
Kichline enlisted and was sent to basic training when he was 19 — just a few years older than his audience.
In the 1960s, the second speaker, George Johnston of the Braden River VFW Post 12055, enlisted and was active in the military during the Vietnam War.
Although the men had different experiences and were active during different wars, similarities peppered the time they spent serving their country.
Kichline told stories about his three-year service in the military, such as the “realistic and frightening” scenarios he was presented with during training — putting out a fire on board a ship, securing life preservers and escaping from the ocean with his feet and hands bound together.
Johnston, a six-year soldier, shared stories of good food, 16mm movies and card games aboard his submarine unit in the North Atlantic — an “overall positive military experience.” When something goes wrong out at sea, though, there’s no maintenance crew to come help — you have to figure it out on your own, said Johnston, who found himself underwater for 60 days at a time.
It wasn’t the service stories the veterans focused on most, however, but the similarities between themselves and the more than 100 teenagers who piled into the room during sixth period for the presentation.
The students laughed as Kichline, a former Naval executive officer, joked about today’s youth using smartphones and Twitter to obtain their news in seconds, whereas he squeezed in beside his family members around a radio to hear the latest when Pearl Harbor was bombed.
On a more serious note, he discussed the drafting age bracket that changed from 21 to 29, to 18 to 37 years old, in 1942, making it possible for a father and son to both be drafted — a common fear during the war, Kichline said.
Despite the hardships, Kichline and Johnston agreed they were proud to fight for something they believed in — the survival of their country. It meant more than just showing off to his friends and showing pretty girls how nice he looked in his uniform, Johnston said.
“The goal here is to make the kids really understand the importance of Veterans Day and the sacrifices these men made so early on in their lives,” said Lori Kish, social studies teacher at Braden River High.
• George Johnston has four grandsons who have served or are currently active in the military.
• Richard Kichline is a Florida native, but as a child he moved to New England, where he enlisted in the military.
• Kichline kept in touch with his shipmates for years after he left the military.
• Johnston is now 72 and Kichline is 88 years old.
IN THEIR WORDS:
“Why did you go into the military so young?” Miya Yawn, 15, asked veteran Richard Kichline.
“It was about doing something important; it was about the survival of our country,” he responded.
“How many of you are 18?” George Johnston asked the group. “Well, at age 19 — just a year from now — imagine going to war and having to make those difficult choices that you have to live with forever; that’s what you bring home in your gut.”
“Be against the cause of the war, if you want, but not against those who are serving,” Johnston said.
Contact Amanda Sebastiano at [email protected].