Listen with awe and gratitude to two Veterans who served our country to keep Americans safe and recognize that Conroe is "home" to two veteran-inspired venues, the Gulf Coast Wing of the Commemorative Air Force and the Montgomery County Veterans Memorial Park.
The Conroe North Houston Regional Airport is fortunate to share space with the Gulf Coast Wing of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF). The Commemorative Air Force collects, restores, and flies vintage historical aircraft. A non-profit educational association, the CAF has over 12 thousand members and a fleet of 170 airplanes distributed throughout the country to 76 CAF units for care and operation.
The Navy JRB-6 "Little Raider," 1947 Beechcraft model D185, is one of the world's most widely used light aircraft, with 45 hundred used for military service during and after WWII. Longtime Conroe resident Ralph Yovino, 94, is a Korean War hero from the United States Army. They served in different wars, but both were integral to the survival of others. One clear morning, Mr. Yovino shared his story with us while standing next to the WWII aircraft.
Yovino was assigned to a 53-man platoon that climbed a hill one evening to hold it overnight until the rest of his company could join them. But events took a sharp turn when Chinese soldiers, who fought with North Korea, ambushed them as they reached the top of the hill.
"The Chinese were all over us with machine gun fire and grenades," he said. "There must have been about two to three hundred enemy soldiers. We did not give up. We kept fighting, and I fired two weapons, my own gun and one of the officers' weapons, who was right behind me. But after a half hour, we were taken over, and the enemy was everywhere."
A grenade exploded in front of Yovino, throwing him backward and blowing his helmet off. "I felt something heavy over my right eye and pain in my ear, pain and tremendous ringing in my ear," he said.
He quickly reached for his first aid kit and applied a patch over his wound when he and the others were ordered off the hill. As Yovino ran down the hill, he saw a man on the ground, who he would later find out was named John Pariza. A bullet had hit Pariza in his right leg. Yovino patched his wound and carried Pariza on his back down the hill.
"In all, only 13 of 53 men survived," Yovino said.
Years passed, and the men lost touch with one another. Neither man remembered the other's last name. However, 57 years later, the two veterans reconnected in 2008 after a friend of Yovino's found Pariza's name listed on a 5th Regimental Combat Team website.
Today, Yovino enjoys talking about the love of his life, Nancy Lee Yovino, to whom he was married for nearly 40 years. Her travel agency served the Conroe area for decades, allowing them to travel worldwide, taking 60 cruises. In 1982, they married in Maui and honeymooned in Singapore and Hong Kong. While married, they flew all over the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Europe, visiting Russia, India, China, Chile, Great Britain, Mexico, and Bermuda.
Sit with Yovino, and he will tell you about the years he "worked for the astronauts"- the first ones landing on the moon. He befriended the 21 NASA astronauts while servicing their corvettes in the Houston area.
In early 1963, Yovino was the store manager at the Firestone on the corner of Harrisburg Blvd and Wayside in Houston, the same one AJ Foyt used before winning the Indianapolis 500.
"On Sundays, since we were closed that day, my store was assigned to take care of all the astronauts' cars, their Corvettes, plus their family cars," Yovino said. "At this time, I worked on the cars of Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Gordon Cooper, Deke Slayton, Wally Schirra, Gus Grissom, and Scott Carpenter. Next, I took care of another two groups of seven astronauts: Neil Armstrong, Eugene Cernan, Pete Conrad, Buzz Aldrin, and many others."
The astronauts received their Corvettes from Jim Rathman's Chevy dealership in Florida, and Yovino was charged with changing their tires and servicing the vehicles.
"Most of the astronauts were great guys. I was closest to Gordon Cooper, Eugene Cernan, Wally Schirra, and Deke Slayton. I took Neil Armstrong to lunch at a Mexican restaurant one day while he waited on new tires for his Corvette. He was very shy and barely talked. He was a nice man," Yovino said. "I think he had enchiladas."
Today, Yovino lives alone and has a caregiver that he says is "my adopted granddaughter." In his book, "Memories of Ralph Yovino," which he wrote in 2014, he says, "I'm old-fashioned. I thought as one got older, families became closer. I guess I'm just a romantic. I repeat: Love one another. Keep in touch. We, old people, love to hear from you. We get lonely and love get-togethers. One thing is for sure: we all will get older if you are lucky. God bless you all, and God bless America!"
Across town, the other landmark Veteran venue is the Montgomery County Veterans Memorial Park (MCVMP). It's where Duke Coon serves as the vice chair of the Montgomery County Veterans Memorial Park and chairs the Building Committee.
It was April 19, 1989, and 1987 Conroe High graduate Duke Coon was on board the Navy battleship USS Iowa working as a boiler tech when an unexpected "peacetime" explosion killed 47 of his shipmates.
"It changed my outlook on life," Coon said. "After that day and knowing God spared my life, I wanted to dedicate my life to a life of service and giving back to my community."
Since that dreadful day, Coon has lived up to that promise to himself. He has served 12 years on the Conroe City Council and enjoys serving on the Lone Star Family Health Clinic, board helping others with affordable health care, and serves at the MCVMP. He has assisted in receiving millions of dollars in funding to help Chairman Jimmie Edwards build this national treasure located at the intersection of I-45 and State Highway 105 in Conroe.
A groundbreaking ceremony is planned on Veterans Day, November 11, at 9 a.m. for the Freedom Hall that will be built on the park grounds. Last month, a memorial of the B-17 aircraft was donated by Tony Gullo Sr and installed on October 8.
"I try to live every day for my brothers on the ship," Coon said. "I'm all in for Conroe and all in for the citizens here." Learn more about the park at HonroedMission.org.
"I felt something heavy over my right eye and pain in my ear, pain and tremendous ringing in my ear. In all, only 13 of 53 men survived," Yovino said.