2008-03-14 / Community
WWII pilot lived history
Part 2 of two parts
John Kistler admits some of the details of events from his 89 years don't always come instantly to mind.
Although he occasionally hesitates when asked for a specific date, the retired Navy commander and former college professor weaves a fascinating tale with the stories he shares.
A pilot with more than 13,000 combat hours flown and a former commander of Air Force Two, Kistler now lives with his wife of 66 years, Josephine, in the Camarillo home built for them by Lance Kistler, the oldest of their four children.
Hawaiian royalty and Nixon
It was 1949 and John Kistler, a 30-year-old Navy commander, was stationed with his family in Hawaii. The island was in the midst of a maritime strike, and freighter cargo that was being kept from store shelves clogged the ports.
Kistler, a commander of a Martin PBM5 Mariner, was assigned to fly cargo runs between San Francisco and Hawaii, bringing in large shipments of rice to feed the islanders shut off from the outside world.
His deliveries made Kistler a well-known figure within the small island community, and he and his wife were soon invited to a series of lavish luaus hosted by the Hawaiian royal family.
Word of the parties, he said, earned him a reputation that reached Washington, D.C., and Kistler became the unofficial host for U.S. politicians visiting Hawaii. He and his wife hosted a number of diplomats, but Kistler said he became closest to Richard Nixon, then the junior senator from California, who made trips to Hawaii with his wife, Pat.
"He never drank, smoke or cursed," Kistler said of Nixon. "He was a true gentleman. The most straight man I ever met."
The two kept in touch, and in 1952, Kistler and his wife were invited to Washington, D.C., to sit alongside Nixon, the newly elected vice president, at the inaugural ball for President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
"It was a great honor," said Kistler.
Aside from a brief hello, Kistler said, he didn't talk much with Eisenhower that night, although he'd flown with the thenU.S. Army general on two separate invasion flights in the Pacific during World War II. Kistler said he believed Eisenhower, who did not wear his rank on his uniform during the flight, clandestinely joined the two missions in preparation for invasions in both France and Germany.
"I didn't know who he was until after the flight my buddy turns to me and says, 'Do you know who that was?' I shook my head, and he said, 'General Eisenhower.'"
Korea and tang soo do
At the outset of the Korean War, Kistler, still stationed in Hawaii, flew evacuation flights for American families out of Pusan Bay at the tip of the Korean Peninsula.
An experienced combat pilot, he said the brief flights into Korea weren't without their danger.
"We were the best targets that flew in there," Kistler said of the large seaplanes. "We didn't have any anti-fire on the plane."
During his short time in Korea, Kistler began practicing the martial art of tang soo do under Hwang Kee, a Korean grand master largely credited with creating the kung fu style focused on selfdefense. Although he trained under Kee for less than a year, Kistler said, the sessions were exceptionally intense, often lasting 12 hours a day.
In the early '60s, Kistler was sent to Washington, D.C., to teach flight school to captains and admirals. It was a job, he said, that required a great deal of diplomacy.
"Can you imagine telling an admiral he didn't qualify?" Kistler asked. "It took a lot of tact."
It was an assignment, he said, given to him by Admiral Arthur W. Radford, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
While in Washington, Kistler took command of Air Force Two, the plane used by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. Kistler admits he was glad to end his time aboard the vice president's plane.
"To tell you the truth, I really didn't appreciate him," Kistler said of Johnson. "He did too many things that were against the law. I couldn't stand it."
Kennedy and Cuba
It was 1963, and Kistler, then in his early 40s, was close to finally earning his bachelor's degree in art from California State University San Diego. He had left Central Michigan University without a diploma two decades earlier to enlist in WWII.
That same year, President John F. Kennedy was invited to Cal State San Diego to receive an honorary law degree. Kistler said he was looking forward to hearing the president speak, but because of the ongoing crisis in Cuba the commander was ordered to leave college to help plan another invasion of the island country. Kistler quickly earned the needed credits to graduate and slipped out of school without the pomp and circumstance of a formal graduation.
Even though the orders to report to duty made Kistler miss Kennedy's address to his graduating class, the two men would cross paths five months later in Florida, where the president had stopped while en route to Texas to be briefed on plans for the invasion of Cuba.
Kistler was chosen to give the early morning presentation to Kennedy. He and the president later met for breakfast.
"I was impressed by him," Kistler said of Kennedy. "A very pleasant guy."
Days later, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
Leaving the Navy
Kistler spent only a brief time in Vietnam. Toward the end of his distinguished career in the Navy, he qualified to fly the F4 Phantom Jet, but never flew the powerful aircraft in combat.
By the mid '60s, Kistler was teaching at Miami University of Ohio, a post he held for five years.
During his time on the Ohio campus, he introduced tang soo do first to the ROTC Navy midshipmen and then to the entire campus. It was a class, he said, that helped many of the women students feel safer.
"Assaults on women dropped to nearly zero on campus," he said.
Stephen Hayes, 10th-degree black belt and a member of the Martial Arts History Museum Hall of Fame, was a student in Kistler's class.
"He's a magnificent gentleman," Hayes said. "He was a great mentor and a friend. I owe him so much over the years."
Hayes would go on to develop his own style of kung fu, and then become a personal bodyguard for the Dali Lama in the late '80s.
Kistler left Miami University for Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla., in the early '70s. He would continue teaching tang soo do, along with a multitude of other courses.
"I taught 18 different courses," Kistler said with a laugh. He eventually earned his doctorate from the University of Florida in the late '70s and retired from teaching in 1988.
Many of Kistler's tang soo do students would go on to open their own karate schools. Their teacher's influence in the martial arts is still felt today.
An honorary 10th-degree black belt, Kistler moved to Camarillo 12 years ago and said he still spends his day teaching the art of t'ai chi to his neighbor.
A father of four, he has 17 grandchildren and six greatgrandchildren.
When asked the secret of his success, Kistler said it comes with a positive attitude.
"I had a father who never went to school past the seventh grade; he told me to enjoy everything you do in life," Kistler said. "If you enjoy it, you'll do it the best you can, and that's the way I've felt my entire life. I've made my mind up to enjoy what I'm doing, and it works."