Friday, October 12, 2007

A Couple of Cool-Guy Obits

When I was a kid, I noticed that my grandmother always read the obituaries first. I later found out that it was because she was looking for people she knew there.

Fortunately, I'm not at that point in my life yet. My reading of the obituaries first started even before I was in a Celebrity Dead Pool. I started reading the obits because often it was the first I'd heard of many interesting people. Today was no exception.

The New York Times had the obit of Nolan Herndon. He was the navigator of one of the B-25's that flew the Doolittle Raid. The raid, which was meant to bolster American morale after the Pearl Harbor raid, was amazing. The pilots took off of the carrier Hornet in B-25 bombers, which were not designed to be taken off of aircraft carriers.

Mr. Herndon scoffed at being called a "hero," stating "We were just doing our job." Against his wishes, I'll still call him a hero.

Herndon's crew landed in the Soviet Union. Since the Soviet Union was not at war with Japan at that point, Herndon and his crew were detained, and escaped to Iran a year later, where they made it to the British consulate and were repatriated to the United States.

The damage to Japanese military and industry was negliable, but the raid may have in fact had a part in the ultimate U.S. victory. The Japanese did not know that the raiders were on a one-way trip (they were to land in China), assuming the United States had developed a new long-range bomber. The Japanese military hastily redeployed carriers and aircraft to be nearer Japan to protect against such a threat. The reduced strength in the Pacific had a big role in the U.S.' shattering victory in the Battle of Midway, which was the beginning of the end for the Japanese in World War II.

The other cool-guy obit was for Bud Ekins, a stunt cyclist in the movies.

Ekins was responsible for two of the great stunts in the movies, and played two parts in one of them.

One was Steve McQueen's famous motorcycle chase in The Great Escape. Contrary to popular belief, McQueen didn't do all of his own stunt work. The part where "The Cooler King" took a 65 foot leap over a 12 foot barb-wire fence was actually done by Ekins. I've included the Youtube clip of the chase, including the jump, for any of you youngsters who have never seen it (and for us old folks who just love seeing the clip).

Ekins was paid $1000 for the jump, an exorbitant sum for a stunt those days. When asked about the landing, according to the obit, he simply responded "Hard!"

Ekins had not one, but two parts in the legendary chase scene in Bullitt, one of my top ten favorite movies. Many film buffs rate this as the greatest chase scene ever.

Ekins alternated driving the Dodge Charger with stuntman/actor Bill Hickman, who is actually shown driving the car in the movie. Ekins did the motorcycle stunt-- dropping the motorcycle to the road when McQueen's Ford Mustang and the mob hitmen's Charger nearly hit him. I've included this legendary scene too.

Notice that Detective Bullitt pauses for a moment to make sure the motorcyclist is okay, before resuming the chase. Ever the good guy.

Just for fun, watch the scene and count two things: One, how many times they pass the green Volkswagon, and two, how many hubcaps the Charger loses. Hint: it's more than four. The chase scene, done in parts, is still harrowing, no matter how many times I've seen it, and runs through some of my favorite parts of the Bay area.

Ekins did stunts in Animal House, the Blues Brothers, Diamonds Are Forever and many other movies. He also shared a birthday with me, May 11.


vikkitikkitavi said...

Spooney and I watched Ken Burns's series on WWII on PBS recently. If you didn't see it, you must. Even though every episode was at least two hours, we were always bummed when it ended.

Natalie said...

That is really interesting I have never thought of reading the obits to learn about neat people but it makes so much sense.

Skylers Dad said...

That was so cool JY. As you know I am a big fan of history of WWII, and I watched a discovery series that showed what they did to accomplish the feat of getting a B-25 to take off of a carrier. The lower gun turret was pulled, lots of armor was removed, they made them several thousand pounds lighter. And only then could they get airborne in the short distance!

Great Escape and Bullitt are both favorites of mine also. Folklore says that during the chase scene going downhill, a lady stepped out in front with her shopping cart and it got hit. She wasn't part of the movie, and they left it in!

Distributorcap said...

you know people in NY read the obits to find an apartment -- seriously

as for the celebrity death pool
a guilty pleasure -- many years an entry in

Bubs said...

Excellent post. The Doolittle raid is one of my favorite military raids. I love a grand gesture.

I had never heard of that stuntman. Thanks for the clips.

Erik Donald France said...

These are cool guys -- thanks for profiling 'em.

Love those scene is The Great Escape and Bullitt -- can evedn remember seeing them for the first time on screen, as a kid. Awesome!

Johnny Yen said...

I did indeed watch it-- it entailed a rare co-opting of the television. Usually I leave it to others in the house in the evening.

It was mostly stuff I knew-- I've long been very interested in World War II-- but I really liked the presentation, focusing on the four towns. I appreciated the way that they gave attention to the stupidity of putting Japanese-Americans in concentration camps.

Do you remember that Sen. Inouye, the guy who lost an arm fighting in Europe, was the one whom John Wilson, lawyer for Haldeman and Ehrlichman, called a "little Jap," not realizing his comment was picked up on a microphone? Given that Inouye was a maimed war hero, this did not set well with the public.

One of the first people I discovered though an obit was Otto Klineberg. He did one of the first scientific studies that debunked the myth of racial intellectual differences.

Incidentally, one of his assistants in the study was a young lady named Zora Neale Hurston.

I'd heard that about finding apartments in New York!

One of my regulars at the restaurant brought his mother, who lives in Miami, in for dinner the other night. She told me that where she lives, women will go to the funeral of women who have died to try to meet their widowers, claiming to have been friends of the wives!

I generally use to poach picks for my pool!

If you want to participate in the Golden Ghoul Dead Pool, the one I'm in, email me ( There's no fee to enter.

The cost of that raid was high-- including to Chinese civilians. It's estimated that the Japanese slaughtered 250,000 of them for helping the crews.

That is one of the reasons I read the obits-- I would never have heard of either guy.

Whenever The Great Escape was on television when I was a kid, it was a family event (at least for my brothers and my dad and I).

When Bulllitt came out on DVD, I brought a copy out as a gift to my co-best friend, who was then living in Oakland. We watched it, trying to figure out where all the scenes were. The flophouse that the witness was being housed at was right across the street from where the Zeitgeist, my favorite San Francisco bar is.

The Idea Of Progress said...

You dare defy Nolan Herndon? His ghost will come back to bomb you.

GETkristiLOVE said...

Stunt People have got to be a very interesting breed of humans - risking their life all the time and getting almost no credit for it.