Soldier's path leads back
by Kelly Feser Eells
Local rancher Bruce Vail, one of 33 veterans featured in "Ojai
Valley's Veterans Stories," is retired, but far from idle.
The Ojai resident looks as fit and trim as he did in 1946, the
year he graduated from Nordhoff High School. Must be "all
those avocados" he and his wife of 47 years, Lavonne, planted
on their Fairview Road property; "They keep us quite busy!"
The Korean War vet grew up in Meiners Oaks, "When there
were only about 50 families living there. In fact, the population
of the entire valley was less than 2,000 people."
The "Y," like most of the valley itself, "was
a cattle grazing pasture. Hay ranches, orange orchards, it was
"Everybody knew everybody," he smiles, adding that,
when he was a teenager, "We hated that. Whenever anybody
got into trouble, the whole town knew it!"
This "sleepy and tranquil place," however, was forever
changed "with that momentous event at Pearl Harbor."
Some 5,000 infantry troops set up camp at the Ojai Valley Inn,
"and started training at the mouth of Matilija Canyon. You
could hear the rumble and roar of 60-mm mortars and 75-mm guns
exploding just a mile from the Nordhoff campus. I remember seeing
hundreds upon hundreds of infantrymen marching (from here) to
Ojai's troops were, ironically, shipped to Attu and Kiska "to
halt the Japanese invasion of Alaska. Here they were training
in 100-degree heat" and being sent to what ("Ojai Valley's
Veterans Stories" co-author) David Pressey describes as
a "place where you'd just as likely freeze to death"
as die in battle.
War colored every aspect of the teenage Vail's life. "As
soon as you graduated high school, you were drafted. So a couple
of friends and I decided to beat them to the punch. We went up
to Santa Barbara (to enlist), but when we got there, we were
told that, since the war had ended - this was June, 1946 - they
were discouraging people from enlisting. But when the Korean
War came along, guess who was No. 1 on the list?"
Though Vail had hoped to join the Navy, the Army had other plans
for him. "The very day I filled out all these papers (at
the Navy recruiting office) was the day I got my draft notice!"
He was sent to Ford Ord for basic training, then to "hot
and humid Fort Benning, Georgia," for advance combat training.
"As our training progressed, we were thinking we were going
to Korea. So imagine our surprise when we found out we were going
"All of a sudden, we realized something was up. We thought
that, since the Army was engaged in heavy combat against the
Chinese in Korea, that that's where we were going. But, as it
turned out, Harry Truman had decided there was something going
on with the Russians, so they put us up on the Czech border facing
thousands of Soviet tanks." He shakes his head and adds,
"and we're thinking, 'Great. So I'm gonna stop a Russian
tank with an M-1 rifle?'"
Though Vail spent two icy winters "digging foxholes,"
there were certainly worse places to be. And he remains "ever
grateful that," unlike some of his friends and acquaintances
from Nordhoff High School, he was able to come home and "lead
a long, happy and satisfying life."
© 2002 The Ojai Valley News
Back to the news
VAIL, avocado rancher and longtime Ojai resident, is one of 33
veterans in a new book, "Ojai Valley's Veterans Stories."