The Star-News


Pena is Veteran of the Year

Sun, Jul 03 2011 12:00 PM Posted By: Allison K. Sampite

The Star-News columnist Richard Pena has been around the block.

He was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, and enlisted in the Navy in 1937 at 18 years old.

He fought in WWII during the attack on Pearl Harbor and served in the Korean War. He has made a lifelong commitment to helping the community he lives in and writes a weekly column about notable locals.

The former naval chief warrant officer — a title Pena received during the war — was honored last week by
Assemblymember Marty Block as the 78th District Veteran of the Year in Sacramento.

“A Pearl Harbor survivor who demonstrated great commitment to our country in time of war, Officer Pena
also served as an educator and school principal, and played a key role in founding the Bonita Museum and
Historical Society…” Block said.

Block said Pena’s community service is inspirational and called him a poster child for the greatest generation.

“It gives you the feeling that perhaps you’ve done something right somewhere along the line,” Pena said.

Pena recalls many memories that fateful day Dec. 7, 1941. He’s carried them with him all these years. Upon a U.S. ship called the California, Pena hitched a ride back to the USS Detroit.

While on the California, Pena got to know some of the members of the Navy’s band.

“Every morning, the band played the national anthem at 8 a.m., as they always did,” Pena said.

After dropping Pena off, the California left only to get bombed during Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and many of the servicemen on board at the time were killed. Pena said his ship set out to look for Japanese after the attack, but didn’t find any. It’s a good thing, he said.

“If we had I wouldn’t be talking to you today. We were too outnumbered.”

As a military man, he also enjoyed many beautiful scenes overseas, including ports of call in Japan, Philippines and the Mediterranean. Pena said he especially enjoyed the Mediterranean — home to the Italian and French Riviera, Cannes, Nice and Naples.

Pena soon came across the most beautiful sight he had ever laid his eyes on.

Pena met his life-long partner Zula in 1945 in Mobile, Ala. Zula worked in a shipyard where Pena helped get the ships into commission.

The following year they were married. Pena has lived in Chula Vista at his home in the Sweetwater Manor with Zula since 1959.

After spending 20 years serving in the United States Navy, he retired in 1957 and soon received his teaching credential and master’s degree at San Diego State University. He spent another 20 years as a classroom teacher and school principal primarily in southeast San Diego.

Pena said he got into teaching due to his interest in people and the community. “Some of the best years I spent in my entire life was as a classroom teacher,” Pena said. “It was a challenge and opportunity to be well prepared and give kids something I thought I had.”

Pena said last Wednesday that he was deeply honored by the recognition. “San Diego has an extremely active veterans population and we remain dedicated to improving our communities,” he said.

Since retiring from education, Pena has written a weekly column for The Star-News for the last 28 years.

Pena spends his spare time playing his ukulele with a local music group, the Merrie Ukes, and was once part of a benefit concert held at the Bonita Museum for 16 years.

Pena and his wife Zula of 65 years reside in Bonita where they raised three children.

“When you live to be 92, things are bound to happen in between,” Pena said.


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