- By Anusha Lalani American-Statesman Staff
When he looks back on his time in the service, 93-year-old World War II veteran Wendell Wise Mayes Jr. shares a simple truth.
“The Navy changed me from a shallow 18-year-old teenager to a mature 22-year-old adult,” Mayes said.
Mayes, a radar technician who served in the Pacific on the battle-worn aircraft carrier USS Yorktown, had survived a typhoon that sank three destroyers. Then, just 12 days after Mayes left the Yorktown to go home in March 1945, a bomb from a Japanese plane plunged through the deck and exploded, sending shrapnel into the radar repair room where Mayes would have been working. Two radar techs were killed in the blast.
“I came back with no injury whatsoever,” Mayes said. “Now, somebody was looking after me.”
Mayes, who now lives at the Brookdale Westlake Hills senior living community in Austin, spent his postwar years becoming a longtime radio broadcasting and cable television executive before earning multiple college degrees after retirement, including a Ph.D. as recently as four years ago. He also organizes a luncheon to honor other veterans at Brookdale Westlake Hills.
“We call Dr. Mayes ‘Amazing Mayes,’” said Laura Clark, the resident program coordinator at Brookdale Westlake Hills. “He’s the kind of the guy that just jumps in with both feet, and he’s just really done a whole lot.”
Mayes was born in San Antonio in 1924, the son of a radio station owner and grandson of William Harding Mayes, a former Texas lieutenant governor and newspaper publisher who founded the University of Texas School of Journalism in 1914.
Wendell Mayes attended Schreiner Institute (now Schreiner University) in Kerrville for a semester. He transferred to the University of Texas for a year before joining the Navy in 1942 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
After boot camp and special training as a radar operator assisting fighter pilots on night flights, Mayes finally went to sea aboard the Yorktown in October 1944. In an autobiography, Mayes wrote that he’d gotten five battle stars for his uniform ribbons but the only “enemy” he saw while on the Yorktown was when sailors rescued a “half-drowned Japanese teenage fisherman” whose boat was sunk by shellfire.
Mayes spent five months on the Yorktown before his air group was transferred to the carrier Lexington, now a museum in Corpus Christi. Mayes said he remembers sailors coming back to the fleet and telling him about the Battle of Okinawa and kamikaze suicide planes attacking the Yorktown and other ships. The sailors told Mayes about 18 other radar techs he trained with who were on the ship who were injured or killed, leaving Mayes and one other technician as the only two left uninjured.
“I can’t tell you how it made me feel,” Mayes said. “I felt lucky.”
Mayes continues to stay involved with other veterans and personally invites them to a monthly luncheon at Brookdale Westlake Hills, where he interviews the veterans and has them share their story, which he has combined into a published book, “Brookdale Westlake Hills Veterans: A Book of Honor.”
“We’ve got anywhere from 20 to 30 veterans that are coming to our luncheons every month,” Clark said. “It’s amazing because so many (of our veterans) have said, ‘Well, I don’t have a story,’ but he draws it out of them, and he says, ‘Well, everyone has a story.’ “
Clark said they even draw people who aren’t veterans just to hear his interviews. “You can tell it’s something that they really look forward to,” she said.
Mayes said the people who are serving in the military right now are fighting a different fight from the one he did.
“I don’t know how we’ll ever get out of it,” he said of the wars against terrorist groups in the Middle East. “There was no question in World War II on who we were fighting. What we’re doing now doesn’t seem to have any ends because who’s going to surrender? There is not a government to control that bunch, so there’s nobody to surrender.”
Mayes also said it’s troublesome to think about what’s going on with North Korea and its claims of having ballistic missiles that can reach the United States.
“If we get in another war like that, it’s going to be worse than anything we’ve seen,” he said. “I don’t want to get political, but we’ve got a guy in North Korea and a guy in our country and they’re just trying to out-bluff the other one.”
Despite the uncertainty of all that is happening overseas, Mayes said he will always remember his service to his country.
“I have no regrets whatsoever about what happened to me when I was in the Navy,” he said. “I think I did the right thing in joining the Navy. Being a veteran is something that I’m proud of.”