The “Big Sky Country.” Rolling hills and endless green. Under a canopy of blue, you guide your ride to the forest. Now, to the mountain. On the way, a chattering trout stream calls for your skills. Montana. What a place to grow up! What a country to know as yours! Such was the experience for Ernest Mitch. Born in Missoula, Montana on July 7, 1922, Ernie grew up happy as the “middle” child. His younger sisters, Dolores and Betty pestered, but adored him. Arnold and Joe were always there to show their kid brother the ropes. The Mitch’s loved being a family in this beautiful part of the world. Hunting, fishing, hiking and camping were almost as close as the back yard.
Upon graduating high school, Ernest enrolled at the University of Montana – Missoula. On a crisp Sunday afternoon in December of his second year, Mr. Mitch and his Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity brothers were hosting a Tea and Dance for sorority sisters. At around 5:00 pm, the music stopped abruptly. Then the announcement: “The U.S. Naval Station in Hawaii has just been attacked by the Japanese!” A stunned silence ensued.
A few weeks later representatives of the U.S. Navy came to the college to describe a government sponsored flight orientation program. Because of the urgent and immediate need to defend our Country, students who passed this screening would be granted priority consideration to enter pilot training.
Ernest had never been in an airplane, but since the flight time would be free, why not? His first lessons were in a J-3 Piper Cub. After learning basic maneuvers, he advanced to a larger aircraft, the Waco bi-plane. Having discovered an aptitude for flying, it was time for Ernest to make a decision. Should he go for military training or remain in school?
Mr. Mitch reflects, “There was no doubt about what I should do. I had grown up with so many benefits in this Country that I love, I figured it was my turn, now.” At the end of the current semester, Ernest Mitch became a cadet in pilot training at the Naval Air Station in Long Beach, California.
Here, our veteran immersed himself in ground school, physical conditioning, military protocol and primary flight training. In three months, Mr. Mitch flew solo for the first time and was transferred to Corpus Christi for advanced flight and tactical training. Now a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps, Ernest was scheduled for his first overseas assignment.
Lt. Mitch joined a Corsair squadron on New Hebrides as a replacement pilot. Almost immediately, he saw action escorting and protecting our bombers as they destroyed the major base for the Japanese fleet at Rabaul. These Corsairs were also deployed as bombers, flying in formations of four to eight. Later, First Lieutenant Mitch flew the Corsair on missions to secure the island of Guam.
The Marine Corps said it was time for a little rest and relaxation (R&R). Ernest and other single officers were assigned temporary billets at the Laguna Beach Hotel. While lounging in the sun one afternoon, Ernie met Audrey, a lovely blond who lived and worked close by. In the days following, Audrey showed Ernest the local sights. They sampled the fare at seaside eateries, enjoyed strolls on the beach and promised each other to stay in touch.
The Corsair aircraft that Mr. Mitch flew in the war with Japan, and would again fly in Korea, was one of America’s finest and most versatile warplanes. However, jet aircraft were now becoming available to our fighting forces. Lt. Mitch was transferred to Pensacola Naval Air Station to transition to turbine powered aircraft and to train other pilots who had previously flown only piston powered equipment.
Soon, Ernest’s duties were expanded with a promotion to Captain and assignment to the training command at the Marine Air Station, Quantico. Here he was joined by his bride-to-be. He and Audrey were married in 1944 and set up house-keeping in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Early in 1945, soon after the birth of the Mitch’s first child, David, Ernest was transferred to Midway Islands. Shortly after his arrival, military strategy shifted and the Captain was told to expect a change of assignment to Hawaii. The problem from Ernest’s standpoint was that he was expecting the arrival of his wife and son. Earlier, the Marine Corps had said that the boy must be at least five months old before he and his mother could make the long voyage to Midway. To Ernie’s relief, the Corps agreed to delay his transfer to Hawaii until the family was reunited.
Hawaii was still recovering and rebuilding from the horrific damage caused by the Japanese attack. Part of Captain Mitch’s job as an adjutant to the commander was helping to coordinate with civil authorities the many tasks yet to be done. Mr. Mitch also stayed current in the Corsair. The happiest event during the family’s three year stay in Hawaii was the birth of their first daughter, Diane.
It was clear by now that issues regarding Korea were coming to a head and that the United States would likely become involved. With the defeat of Japan, a suitable air station and jumping-off point to Korea was now available for use by American aviators. To that end, Captain Mitch and his squadron of Corsairs were standing-by ready to fly.
At 0600 hours on August 6, 1950, Marine Fighter Squadron 323 is ordered to Badoeng Strait to lead an attack against North Korean targets. This successful mission was the first to be flown by Marine Aviation in Korea.
During his tour of duty in Korea, Captain Mitch flew 94 bombing missions in the Corsair. This powerful and versatile fighter was armed with bombs, rockets and machine guns. Tactical units flew in squadrons of four to sixteen aircraft, forming a deadly phalanx of firepower and destruction. As the fastest piston-engine fighter at the time, this gull-wing bird excelled in one-to-one combat, even when carrying heavy munitions loads.
Returning stateside, Captain Mitch trained pilots at Cherry Point Naval Station and Olathe Naval Air Station. While at Olathe, the Mitch family welcomed second daughter, Cynthia. Shortly thereafter, Captain Mitch was promoted to Major and transferred back to the training command at Quantico.
Time for a rest? Hardly! Long Beach, California became home. Now, the family could enjoy quality time without concerns over Dad’s safety or unexpected transfer orders.
As a young man, Ernest loved his life in the “Big Sky Country” of Montana. Once again, he craves the out-of-doors. Having friends and business contacts in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a move to the “Land of a Thousand Lakes” could offer the best of everything. The family voted “YES” and packed their bags.
In Minneapolis, Ernest’s interest in merchandising led him to Pier One Imports. Here, a talent for organizing and working with people served him well. Later, a new and rapidly growing Radio Shack Corporation offered our veteran similar opportunity.
In twenty-two years of military flying, Mr. Mitch accumulated around 5,000 hours as pilot in command. Now, he and three friends arrange to jointly purchase a new private plane. Ernest says the choice was easy. The fastest, most comfortable single engine aircraft on the market in 1966 was the Beechcraft Bonanza. In order to accommodate their families and friends, the partners ordered the six passenger model.
Utilizing the airplane’s full instrument flight panel, a rated pilot could fly passengers safely to their destination, rain or shine. Racy looking wing-tip tanks carried extra fuel for flights up to 650 miles non-stop. Finally, a cruising speed of 170 mph would put you at Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving dinner with time to spare.
The Mitch family loved to hunt and fish, as they had a generation earlier. Whether going by car, van or airplane, Ernest’s retirement years were full of travel and recreation. Vibrant relationships with family and friends made life very full indeed.
In 2011, the passing of Audrey, Ernest’s loving wife and partner of 64 years, brought family and close friends to Ernie’s side to talk about ways that he wished to honor Audrey and continue to pursue a creative and energetic life.
Since Ernest was dealing with some medical issues, it was suggested that he consider the Missouri Veterans Home – St. Louis. We are happy that he chose to make his home with us. Ernie is a quiet, thoughtful man who enjoys good conversation. He is frequently seen at the poker table. Ernie says he played poker a few times with the famous Marine aviator, Pappy Boyington, but he won’t tell us who won! Ernie usually joins us for bingo, or sometimes, he catches a sporting event on wide-screen TV in the recreation room.
Major Mitch, know that we appreciate you and that we honor your gift of service.