By Raiza Giorgi
Creighton “Jim” Axtell shuffled around the picnic tables at Hans Christian Andersen Park greeting family and friends, chatting about fond memories and getting many congratulations for hitting a milestone birthday.
“My birthday was on April 15 and I turned 100! I don’t know the secret to living so long, other than just live every day to the fullest,” he said.
Axtell was born in Missouri, where his father was a telegraph operator for Western Union and his mother was a clerk.
“I remember when the first form of radios came out and there was only one channel to listen to. It’s incredible how far technology has come, I wonder what will happen in the next 100 years,” Axtell said.
Axtell recalls everyone gathering around their radio sets to listen to FDR’s “fireside” speeches.
When Axtell graduated from high school he moved to Los Angeles to get involved in the war effort. He enlisted in the Army Air Forces and then worked at Lockheed assembling parts. He eventually married his wife Phyllis, who had moved from North Dakota to also join the war effort. They will celebrate 76 years of marriage this month.
Axtell said he was then offered a position at Lockheed with top-secret responsibilities, asked if he wanted a good-paying job even though he couldn’t know what the job was until after he accepted. He said sure, why not?
“I was taken to an isolated building each day and I couldn’t tell anyone, not even Phyllis, what we were doing,” he said.
He was part of a team developing fighter jets that ended up producing the XP-80. The code name for the project was “Skunk Works,” after a reference in the newspaper cartoon “Li’l Abner.”
The XP-80 flew before the end of World War II, but it wasn’t used in combat until later.
“While I was in the Air Force we ended up as the first squadron that went to Hiroshima after they dropped the bomb. I can tell you, that is something I will never forget, just the utter destruction for as far as the eye could see. It was heartbreaking,” he said.
At his birthday party, Axtell was joined by three friends who also served in World War II. Jim Kunkle, 96, was a decorated fighter pilot; Dwight Watts, 93, was a naval aviator on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific; and Bill Hardy, 96, served on a destroyer in the North Atlantic.
While his carrier was being attacked by Japanese kamikazes, Watts’ plane failed to launch, and he ended up floating on a life raft for some time. He also served in the Korean War.
Hardy spent 20 years in the Navy, and his ship was responsible for sinking several submarines.
“There aren’t many of ‘the greatest generation’ left, and we are so lucky to have these four that served our country so remarkably. Knowing Jim Axtell has been an honor,” said a friend, Dennis Beebe.
Axtell’s grandson said that he got interested in cars because of his grandfather Jim, and now has his own business in Oklahoma restoring classic cars.
The Axtells have been part of the Santa Ynez Valley since 1959, when they built their house in Janin Acres. Jim worked at Vandenberg Air Force Base for Lockheed. Phyllis became the principal at Ballard Elementary School and also worked at Lockheed as a technical editor until retiring in 1987.
In retirement, the Axtells have traveled the world, exploring Europe several times and enjoying an African safari. They also loved being part of local hiking groups and volunteering. Since they can’t get around very well now, they enjoy meals brought to them each day by Atterdag Village of Solvang’s Meals on Wheels program, and they go to the Solvang Senior Center to play games and have lunch sometimes as well.
“I am so blessed to have gotten to know Jim and Phyllis. They are such great people and I love hearing their stories about their lives,” said Ellen Albertoni, executive director of the Senior Center.
People attending the birthday party enjoyed posters of photos and sang “Happy Birthday” before Axtell blew out candles that made the number 100 — because having 100 separate candles would have been a bit much, he laughed.