Rotarian Of The Year Tom Mitchell Gives Back To The Coronado Community - Coronado Eagle & Journal | Coronado News | Coronado Island News: Coronado Island News

Rotarian Of The Year Tom Mitchell Gives Back To The Coronado Community

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Posted: Thursday, July 18, 2019 4:59 pm

Among the many great resources available to the City of Coronado is the vast pool of retired and talented military personnel who live here. Capt. Tom Mitchell, Jr. (USN-Ret.) is another fine example of the men and women who serve on the boards of directors of local non-profits, serve in city government posts and generally supply their organizational expertise where needed.

A native of Birmingham, Alabama, Mitchell graduated from Brevard High School in Brevard, North Carolina. His father, also named Tom Mitchell, was a World War II Army Field Artillery man, who stayed in the Army reserves and retired as a Colonel. On Tom Sr.’s military resume was his landing in the Battle of Anzio, Italy, a fight which lasted from Jan. 22 to June 5, 1944.

Mitchell the Younger was a fine high school and collegiate athlete, which he reviewed. “In high school I played basketball, track and tennis. I was the best foul shooter in high school and the long jump champion of Western North Carolina. My best distance was 21 feet in high school and in college at Auburn University, I was captain of the track team. I won the Southeastern Conference long jump title indoors and outdoors and was the runner-up in the triple jump.”

While at Auburn, Mitchell was also a Navy ROTC student and an Industrial Management major. Upon graduation, Mitchell was commissioned as an Ensign, went directly into the Navy, and reported to Pensacola, Florida for flight training.

However, his desire to fly started many years prior to college. “Primarily my interest in flying started with my Uncle, who graduated from the Naval Academy in World War II and became a Flag Officer. Before that he was an aviator. When I was probably 10 or 12 and we were in Rhode Island, he put me in the backseat of a Banshee. Later he gave me a picture, which he autographed ‘See you in the Blue, Uncle Jimmy.’ I treasured that forever. My Navy ROTC training during the summers was geared toward making you what you wanted to be, which for me was an aviator. I spent three weeks as a Marine, and I could have done it. But aviation was the way to go. We had to spend two summers of ship duty during that time. They’ve changed the program now and they give you a broader sweep of everything in the Navy.”

Mitchell, who is now 76, was a pilot during the Vietnam Era, where he primarily flew the A-4 Skyhawk and the A-7 Corsair II. “I flew about 90 missions over the beach in North Vietnam. There were several tough moments including encountering SAMs (Surface-to-air missiles) over North Vietnam, especially at night. I almost lost a wingman like that one night.”

My scouting report on Mitchell was he was a genuinely nice guy, and the advance report proved to be, if anything, an understatement. One of my favorite memories of our interview was when I asked him about his call sign in the Navy. He replied a little sheepishly, “Demon.” I guess that is roughly the same as calling a large man ‘Tiny.’

Other assignments included a training command to teach young men how to land aircraft on carriers, to later flying cover over the USS Intrepid, where Mitchell had 157 intercepts of Soviet aircraft, when five planes and seven pilots were the sole cover for the ship. Mitchell said, “We also had helicopters and S-2s. When the ship was brought home from the North Atlantic, they gave us 16 airplanes and 22 pilots when we covered the Mediterranean from 1972-73. It was interesting and fun. We were pretty tough.”

Mitchell flew the A-7 Corsair and was a training officer for that aircraft. “I qualified pilots and helped them transition to the carrier, including their first night landing experience on the carrier, which was a revelation. And we did weapons training in Yuma, Arizona. Then I went back to the Fleet and became a Lt. Commander on the USS America, the ship I had the most landings on. I was assigned there twice. Later I was staff commodore over all the A-7’s and then I screened for command. I was Executive Officer and then Commanding Officer of the VA46 Clansmen Squadron. We wore the McDougal Tartan and I visited the McDougal Clan when I was in Scotland. We won the Battle Efficiency Award for A-7’s and the Safety Award. I won the Bombing Derby for A-7’s personally and as a squadron. I was frequently the top tailhooker and I have over 1,000 carrier landings, which got me into the Grand Club. When I received that honor in 1982, I was about the 100th pilot to win the award.”

Later Mitchell served 27 months as the Air Boss on the USS Nimitz and it was during that assignment, he was the arresting officer for the son of convicted Soviet spy John Walker, Ensign Michael Walker. The son went to jail for 20 years and the father died in federal prison in 2014 at the age of 77. Mitchell said, “I was the Command Duty Officer and the senior guy on the ship. We received a super-secret message with no guidance, to arrest Walker, who worked in the Ops Office. In 1985, I was still the Air Boss when the TWA airliner was highjacked in Lebanon and I was supposed to leave the ship because my tour was done. When the captives were released, I was too.”

Mitchell then returned as the CO of an A-7 training squadron and from there he went to the staff of Commander Naval Air Forces, for three years and eight months. He added, “Then I was CO of the Fleet Area Control and Surveillance Facility in San Diego. I retired out of there. It was a great job. It was a big command with over 500 people. It was a fun command. I got my airline transport pilot rating.”

In total, Mitchell served in the Navy for 27 years, from 1965-92. When he retired, he flew for Federal Express for 14 years, primarily the Boeing 727. Mitchell accumulated over 5,000 flight hours in the Navy and another 4,000 for Federal Express.

During the FedEx years, Tom and his wife Susan lived in Memphis, the headquarters for the company for five years, which came to an end when Susie was robbed at gunpoint in front of the family home. The couple returned to Coronado to live.

On the theory that Mitchell shouldn’t be fined by the Rotary Club of Coronado for being the focus of this feature, we’ll note that he joined in August 2006 and was the Club President in 2016-17. When asked about his biggest accomplishment as President, Mitchell said, “I introduced the use of PowerPoint presentations, which became a good thing to use. Also, I started a new alternative meeting on the second Tuesday of the month, for people who couldn’t come on Wednesday. They have been really popular, and we have had some great programs on Tuesdays. We use as many of our Rotarians as possible for the programs. We meet at the Coronado Historic Association. It’s a smaller group, normally 25-45 per meeting. I think they’re fun.”

In recognition of his contributions to Rotary, Mitchell was named Rotarian of the Year recently. Mitchell, modest to the end, said of the award, “They call it a Lifetime Achievement Award. I think I got it for the 12 plus years I was in Rotary. I was on the Board of Directors for seven years and I was involved in most areas including the Pancake Breakfast, the Low Tide Ride & Stride, the Golf Tournament, and the Rotarian at Work Day, working with Camp Surf. Everything Rotary does.”

Dating back to 1998, Mitchell began providing tours of the Hotel Del Coronado as a volunteer for the Visitor’s center. “Until a year ago we were doing the Hotel Del’s tours and my favorite part was simply the people you met. I loved it. People came from all over the United States and from all over the World.

Mitchell is also involved with Honor Flight San Diego. “Honor flight started in 2005 on the East Coast only and they could visit the Memorials on a one-day trip,” Mitchell explained. “In 2010 we started on the West Coast and we made it a three-day trip. We are focused on World War II guys if they can go and some cities are taking Vietnam Era guys. A lot of the guys in my squadron are in their 90’s now. I had the opportunity to be the guide for a 96-year-old Vet from World War II. It was incredible. We left on a Friday, flew to Baltimore, and went to the hotel in four charter buses. Later we drove to the World War II Memorial in Washington and we went all over, including a front row seat for the Changing of the Guard at the Arlington National Cemetery. Then we did the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, the Korean War Memorial and we went to the Navy Yard for the Naval Museum. That was all on Saturday. In 2007 I took my Dad on an Honor Flight type thing for three days and I’m glad I did it. I felt like I owed him that, the World War II Memorial in particular.”

Mitchell has kept up his tennis game, now playing what he described as ‘Old Man Doubles.’ Frequent playing partners include Dick Colt, Bob Blongiewicz and Ed Lohlein. Mitchell also served for a year on the Board of Directors of Discover Coronado, representing the Coronado Historical Association. “I was impressed by what I saw,” Mitchell said of the experience. “Todd Little does a great job, as do the four general managers of the hotels. Serving on the Board was very enlightening for me and I thought they were doing good things to attract people to Coronado. It’s a worthwhile organization and I like that they changed the name to Discover Coronado.”

Mitchell has also been active in St. Paul’s Methodist Church, including being the head of the Staff Parish Committee and he is still active with his church. The day of our interview, Mitchell was dealing with a water leak in his role as President of his six-unit Homeowners Association, a position he has held since 2008.

The primary constant in Mitchell’s life is his wife of 52 years Susan. “We met when I was in Pensacola during flight training,” Mitchell recalled. “A fraternity brother of mine went to high school with her. I asked him for the name of a nice lady to date, and he came up with Susan.” The couple has two children, a son Tom Mitchell, III, who lives in Washington, D.C. and has daughters aged 10 and 7. Tom and Susan’s daughter Amy Tarbell lives in Florida and she has an eight-year old boy. A lot of the conversation outside of the interview related to the comings and goings of their grandchildren.

Mitchell handled all of the comings and goings during the interview with a graceful ease, which when you consider he was the Air Boss of a Navy Aircraft Carrier shouldn’t come as a surprise. So here’s to Tom Mitchell, a heartfelt thanks for his 27-year Navy career and for his ongoing contributions to Coronado.

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