Cardiff WWII vet celebrates 98th birthday

Arnold "Arnie" Fernandes, recently celebrated his 98th birthday.
(Karen Billing)

Longtime Cardiff by-the-Sea resident and World War II veteran Arnold “Arnie” Fernandes hit the big 9-8 on Jan. 31.

The member of the Greatest Generation was a sonarman with the U.S. Coast Guard-U.S. Navy and he wears the same bright smile that he flashed in a photo that appeared in an issue of “Stars and Stripes” magazine in 1943.

Fernandes has been a Cardiff resident since 1978 with his wife of 53 years, Anna.

“I’ve lived a good life,” said Fernandes at his home last week. “I have a good wife to take care of me.”

Born in Gloucester, Mass. in 1924, he has lived in San Diego since he was two years old. He was born to Portugeuse immigrants and his father moved the family across the country to Point Loma for his career as a commercial fisherman.

Fernandes attended Point Loma High School until his junior year and graduated from Sweetwater High School after his parents moved to Chula Vista. He was a high school track star, a sprinter who owned the 100-yard dash record at Point Loma High School for five years.

In 1942, while a 20-year-old student at San Diego State, he enlisted with three of his closest buddies from Point Loma, including Ed Gann. (Gann, who grew up across the street from him, lived in Rancho Santa Fe and remained a lifelong friend until he passed away in 2010.)

“We picked the Navy and Coast Guard because we grew up near the ocean and fished all of our lives,” Fernandes said. All four of them ended up on the same ship, the Coast Guard Cutter Perseus, stationed in San Diego. “We didn’t even have uniforms or boot camp or anything, they just put us right on the ship.”

Eventually, he was assigned to the Coast Guard Cutter Aurora and spent two years during the war in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, between the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The ship’s primary duties were anti-submarine, escorts and search and rescue missions.

The Aleutians were hell, Fernandes said, mostly because of the horrible and freezing cold weather and they were the site of the two-week Battle of Attu, in which the U.S. fleet suffered heavy losses in one of the largest banzai attacks in the war.

A photo from Arnold Fernandes' scrapbook.
(Karen Billing)

One of Fernandes’ most unforgettably frightening experiences during the war came on Dec. 11, 1943 when the Aurora was on patrol between Adak and Kiska. A huge storm came their way, with winds blasting at 200 miles per hour. The iced-up ship headed for shelter with the rest of the U.S. fleet, the crew having to chop ice away from the starboard side. Most of the fleet, which included battle wagons, cruisers, destroyers, PT boats, tug boats and patrol craft, were all taking shelter but the Aurora received an order to go back out into the storm to search for two liberty ships that had cracked in half, the USS Washakie and The Gaines.

Where Fernandes worked in the sonar room, there was a large brass box with holes drilled on all sides.

“I’d always noticed this brass box and didn’t know what it was for but I found out that day,” he said. That day the captain came in and began to put all of the ship’s documents and codes into the brass box so in the event the ship sank, the Japanese could not get ahold of them. “I figured we were on a suicide mission.”

On the harrowing search and rescue effort in high winds and towering waves, the frozen ship was able to find the Washakie and save the officers and crew. They were unable to find The Gaines and sadly, 10 lives were lost.

“I don’t know how we stayed afloat,” said Fernandes of the Aurora, which following the storm had to go to Seattle to repair the damages.

Fernandes himself would have to undergo back surgery in Seattle after falling two decks on the ship during another Aleutian storm. After a stay in the hospital, where he learned to speak Russian to communicate with a fellow patient, he returned to service.

Fernandes said he found out the war had ended while on leave, traveling home to see his father who was dying. He didn’t make it in time to say goodbye.

Fernandes will never forget the poem one of his Aurora shipmates wrote of their time during the war: “After two years in the Aluetians there’s one thing we can tell, when we die we’ll go to heaven cause we served our hitch in hell.”

Fernandes’ adventures at sea would not end with the war. In 1947, while tuna fishing off the coast of Mexico with his brother, they encountered a storm and their boat, The Sun Beauty, took on water and began to sink. As the boat filled with water and Fernandes, his brother and 10 other men scrambled onto a skiff, he grabbed a bottle of Seagrams and a can of asparagus.

Nearly 11 hours after the Sun Beauty disappeared into the sea, Arnie polished that asparagus can and was able to send a SOS in Morse code using the light of the setting sun to a nearby boat. They were saved by the boat and, in a strange twist of fate, the Coast Guard Cutter Perseus, his first ship, was the one that eventually came to their rescue to bring them home to San Diego.

After the war, Fernandes had re-enlisted in the Navy reserves because hadn’t expected the Korean War to break out. He was recalled to active duty and remained in San Diego throughout the conflict, stationed on the USS Walton assisting in the training of sonar teams and submarines.

In his career after military service, he did “a little bit of everything”— for a time he was a commercial fisherman with Bumblebee and Van Camp (“San Diego was the tuna capital of the world until the 1970s and then everything went foreign,” he says). He then became a marine hardware salesman and got his brokers’ license and worked as a stockbroker.

He was a dedicated community volunteer, serving many years on the Cardiff Town Council.

He traveled the world on fishing trips, learned how to fly a plane and was a very talented painter, showcasing his work in shows at the Cardiff Library with the proceeds going to support the Friends of the Library. Very few originals of his watercolor visions of coastal San Diego remain in his care although he keeps a small book that holds photographs of his work. As a painter, he was also called into action several times to refresh the iconic Cardiff-by-the-Sea sign.

Arnie Fernandes drives his Mercedes in an Encinitas parade in the 1990s.

After one trip to Rio De Janerio, Arnie spotted a 1929 Mercedes at the Miami Airport and wanted one just like it—so he bought a kit and built it. That Mercedes would be used to ferry multiple Miss Encinitas title holders in many Encinitas parades.

Arnie also used to build boats with the San Diego Yacht Club and his living room is filled with intricate miniature ships he has built over the years. He always wanted to build his own airplane to fly too, but Anna wouldn’t let him.

Fernandes’ scrapbook is an impressive collection of a life well-lived, from the newspaper clippings of his high school track races in the 1940s, to programs from his art shows and faces of old friends. He points out a picture selling hot dogs at a community event with Wayne Holden, a Cardiff Chamber of Commerce volunteer who passed away in 1997 and is now memorialized in a statue at Cardiff by the Sea Park.

Pasted right up front in the scrapbook is a thank you letter from President Harry Truman: “To you who answered the call of your country... I extend the heartfelt thanks for a grateful nation,” it reads. “As one of the nation’s finest you undertook the most severe task one can be called upon to perform.”

A proud veteran, Fernandes’ service is also recognized with a plaque at the Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial.

In 2015, Fernandes was able to go on an Honor Flight, a trip gifted to World War II and Korean War veterans to visit the monuments dedicated to their service. In all of his years of traveling the world, it was his first time being at the nation’s capitol in Washington D.C.

“What got me emotional was the stars,” he said of the World War II Memorial’s Wall of Stars. Each of the 4,048 gold stars on the wall represented a hundred military personnel that gave the ultimate sacrifice.

Through Honor Flight, he was able to reconnect with George Sousa, a Korean War veteran that he knew from his childhood back in Point Loma, also the son of a Portuguese fisherman. They remain very close friends. He also connected with Stacey Halboth, a Cardiff resident and Honor Flight volunteer who meets him nearly every Saturday for breakfast. She never stops marveling at his unbelievable life and accomplishments.

“He is always positive and always sees the best in people. He always has a huge smile on his face...He is a real life hero, an encyclopedia of knowledge,” said Halboth. “I admire him because he has endured so many hardships over his lifetime. He makes me want to be a better person and to live in this moment.”

In his 98 years, Fernandes has never been far from the water—from the deck of his Cardiff home he has an uninterrupted view of the ocean. A model ship perched on the railing, when squinted at from a certain angle, sails right on the horizon as the sun sets on another day.