MORAGA -- At 93, Lt. Col. Lloyd Childers retains a memory as sharp as the aim and tactics he used to help turn back Japanese Zeros during World War II's Battle of Midway.
Seventy-two years after the radioman rear-gunner pelted the enemy from a United States Navy "Devastator" torpedo bomber -- first with a 30-caliber machine gun and then with a .45 caliber pistol, after the machine gun jammed -- the Moraga resident says, "I remember everything."
After all, it was his birthday.
Seated in the Aegis Living facility where he now lives, just days after being honored at a Battle at Midway Roundtable, Childers pages through scrapbooks. But he doesn't need to see the photos or reread the letter he wrote to his family in 1942, describing his 21st birthday with, "Boy, what a flight that was."
Childers says the happiest part of turning 21 on the day of battle -- June 4, 1942 -- was watching the Japanese war planes turning away.
"During the attack, they were chasing us all the way, trying to kill us. I knew how they operated; they wanted to keep their home carrier in sight at all times. They'd just left that point, so that's why they turned back," he says.
His legs were shot up -- his right leg shattered at the ankle -- by the time the nearest Japanese pilot came close enough for him to see the man clearly.
"He knew we were out of ammunition," Childers says. "He saluted us. They were trying to kill us, but they didn't hate us. It was an impersonal thing."
By the time Childers and his pilot got back to their carrier, the Yorktown, the ship was listing badly and Childers was groggy from the loss of blood. "We had to circle twice. We couldn't control the elevator because a 20 mm (round) had hit it and there was a hole the size of a football. We water-landed and the Enterprise picked us up.
"My brother, Wayne, was on the Yorktown and asked me later, 'Why didn't you wave at me?'"
The memory makes him shake his head at the wonder and weirdness of war. As the sole surviving gunner out of 12 that day, and in 2014 the last-known survivor of his Midway squadron, Childers isn't sentimental as much as sincere.
"A hero is a guy who saves somebody's life by heroic act," he says. "You have to be willing to do crazy acts, to charge when the moment isn't clear."
Childers says the main thing he taught his three sons about war is "the bitter truth: There's no reason for it." Surprisingly, he remained in the military for 27 years, fighting in the Korean and Vietnam Wars before earning a Ph.D. from the University of North Texas in 1972 and serving as an administrator at Chapman University for 16 years.
His first love, aviation, explains the incongruity of a man opposed to what he calls "war games." He is doggedly earnest when he says, "Every young man should have some military time." Asked if women should be included, he says, "When I reported to my first position, 50 percent of the people were women. It was a training group for B-25s. They were doing everything except flying the airplane."
After the Korean War, about which he says, "We destroyed the country," and, "Even people in the American Zone couldn't be trusted," Childers became commander of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 361 during the Vietnam War. He says he admired the Vietnamese people and never felt America was doing a good thing in "a stinking war that never should have happened."
Even so, determined not to accept a higher commission and become a "ground pounder," his unit held the highest flight time record in a month, 2,173 hours, and conducted Operation Midnight, the war's first nighttime helicopter strike.
But flying helicopters and earning three Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Purple Heart, 14 Air Medals, the Legion of Merit and the Vietnam Cross never rivaled his affection for his favorite warbird, the F4U Corsair. Known as "the bent-wing bird" for its inverted-wing design, Childers says, "The first time I flew it, I said, 'This plane flies like a Singer sewing machine.'"
Embedded in the memories -- of his first wife, Mary, and of leaders he admires, like FDR, who "didn't ignore the economy" and General Douglas MacArthur, who he says "was inclined to be arrogant but thought officers should be in the front line with their people" -- Childers holds to one principle.
"I started out at the bottom," he says. "I understood enlisted people. My first commanding officer had a rule that I followed: never chew out an enlisted man. Save the chewing out for the department head."
As a Marine, he says there "is no front line" and that he never considered himself superior to his troops.
"I believed in treating my enlisted people with respect," he says. "That's why they liked me."