Mike Mitchell never knew that his father was a World War II hero. Sure, he knew that his father had served in the Navy during the war, but Clyde "Mitch" Mitchell, Mike’s father, was never one to talk much about his days as a soldier.
"You know, most of these guys came home [from the war] and just wanted to get on with their lives. He never talked about what he did in WWII," said Mike Mitchell. The days of not knowing what his father had done in the war ended this month when Mitch Mitchell’s friends and family honored his service at an event at the Shanghai Village Restaurant in Bethesda.
A ceremony organized by Robert Eastham, Clyde Mitchell’s cousin, was held during which Clyde Mitchell was presented with a shadow box containing medals that he earned during his service in the Pacific during World War II. The shadow box — an 18-by-12-inch wooden box that is two inches deep with a glass cover — holds the medals that Mitchell earned during his days as a gunner on the U.S.S. Wasp aircraft carrier, as well as other mementos from his days in the Navy.
For Robert Eastham, Clyde Mitchell’s first cousin and the man who organized the ceremony, the event on July 2 was an opportunity to recognize a man he always looked up to. Eastham was 7 years old when Mitchell returned from the war.
"He was like my hero — tall, thin, nice-looking," Eastham said. "He was like my idol, you know?"
THREE YEARS AFTER "Mitch" Mitchell returned from military service, he and his friend Bill Shoemaker opened up the station at the corner of River and Falls roads. Betty and Bob Hampton moved to Potomac in 1967 and got to know Mitchell and his family.
"Mitch was always personable, friendly, and helpful," Betty Hampton said. "He’s a pillar of things in Potomac. He’s just a very congenial, friendly man."
Through the years of running Mitch & Bill’s Exxon, through raising his children and then turning over his business to his son Mike Mitchell, Mitch Mitchell never spoke of his days in the Navy.
Making public knowledge of his wartime service was something that Mitchell has never been a fan of, his family said.
Ed Bowling is Mitch Mitchell’s son-in-law and also worked for Mitchell at Mitch & Bill’s, and was Mike Mitchell’s business partner before getting out of the business a few years back. Mike Mitchell continues to run it today.
"I’ve known him for 34 years now and he hardly ever talks about his time," said Bowling.
THE IDEA for the ceremony came about when Mitch and Bob Hampton got to talking in March. Hampton, a former Army Ranger, hadn’t seen Mitch in several years. During that time he has been assembling shadow boxes for other soldiers, and when he saw Mitch he floated the idea to him. Mitch was receptive to it, Hampton said.
So Hampton set about getting all of the medals that Mitch had earned during his service — medals that he was eligible for from his service but had never gone to the effort of collecting from the military.
The ceremony on July 2 revealed much of what Mitch Mitchell had never spoken to his family about.
Mitchell served as a gunner aboard the U.S.S. Wasp, an aircraft carrier that Bob Hampton said was one of the most decorated ships of World War II. While Mitchell was on board, the Wasp served in eight campaigns including those at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The ship sustained several attacks from kamikaze airplanes that crashed into its deck, as well as a missile from one plane that tore a hole three decks deep.
"That was one time that Mitch said really scared them," Hampton said.
"Taking a missile down on the flak deck, a couple of kamikaze attacks — he doesn’t really like to talk about what he did," Bowling said.
Mitchell joined the service early at the age of 17 — whether he had the required parental permission or not is unclear, Hampton said. His papers incorrectly indicate that he was 19 when he enlisted.
"He’s a real hero," Hampton said.
The shadowbox that Hampton made for Mitchell contains six medals — the American Campaign Medal, the Asian-Pacific Campaign Medal with eight campaign stars, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, the Navy Occupation Service Medal, Philippine Liberation Medal with two campaign starts, and the World War II Victory Medal. It also has a replica set of Mitchell’s dog tags and an old photo of Mitchell in his Naval uniform.
Like so many other veterans from World War II, Mitchell is not fond of talking about or drawing attention to his service, Hampton said. The shadow box was something Hampton and Eastham wanted Mitchell to appreciate, but the ceremony was really for those that never knew about his exploits.
"I [did] it not as much for him, but for the family," Hampton said. "It’s very rewarding to me to honor these men."
"Now of course this was all news to me that he was a hero; he’d never spoken about that stuff before," Mike Mitchell said.
EIGHTEEN PEOPLE came to the ceremony. The waiters and the owner of the restaurant, a friend of Robert Eastham’s, wore sailor hats. Mitchell wore a hat too, and his old uniform hung nearby for people to see.
"I couldn’t even fit in that now — he was a skinny kid," said Betty Hampton, Bob Hampton’s wife.
"It was a great night, it was my birthday and the unveiling of the shadow box," Mitchell said.
"He thoroughly enjoyed his grandchildren and I think that was more of a highlight for Mitch to be able to enjoy his family and his grandchildren, more than his achievements that he made when he served on the USS Wasp in WWII," Bowling said.
Eastham said that Mitchell seemed to enjoy the event and that he saw a side of his long-time hero that he had never seen before.
"He got a little emotional," Eastham said. "I’ve been to half a dozen funerals and I never saw him get upset before."
The night was special for his family too, Eastham said, and they were proud to honor him.
"He deserves it — he’s a great guy and I love him. I’m proud to say that — I love him."