‘Not High-Risk’: How Marine Steered 90 Units at San Diego Veterans Day Parade

Retired Marine Phil Kendro calls himself a “multi-hatted community leader.” On Saturday, as president and CEO of the Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial, he oversaw a 700-person Veterans Day commemoration.

His mission Sunday?

Make sure 90-plus units of the San Diego Veterans Day Parade efficiently rounded a U-turn on Harbor Drive with proper spacing and order to start the procession near the County Administration Building. He labels himself a “marshaller.”

No problem for the 50-year-old United Airlines pilot and Rancho Bernardo resident. The former Harrier jet pilot was a company commander in the 2003 Iraq invasion.

“This is not a high-risk operation,” Kendro said after a 90-minute stint under a bright sun. “This is something that’s fun. It’s great for the community. And honestly, that’s why we’re just pleased to do something like this.”

He labeled the event “controlled chaos” but “honestly, the thing is with this group of people, there’s no egos. They’re calm. They’re cool. They’re collected.” 

Perhaps thousands turned out in high-70s weather to cheer veterans, marching bands, biker units and even dog and dance groups — and wave small U.S. flags handed out by 20 red-shirted volunteers from Liberty Military Housing.

Joseph Taylor, who panhandles in Balboa Park as Santa or the Grinch, was present too — handing out free balloons to kids and displaying a sign that said “My mom is sick. Donations needed for rent” (at a local hotel).

The parade returned after a three-year COVID absence and new steam. (It was held a day after Veterans Day due to a glut of cruise ships.)

He said the committee’s aim was to “get together and take this parade, rebrand it, revamp and get energized. And so it’s what we did.”

This year also marked major anniversaries — 50 years since the return of the Vietnam War POWs and 70 years since the Korean War ended. Grand marshals recognized both milestones.

Also honored was the 100th anniversary of the nearby Marine Corps Recruit Depot, the 80th anniversary of Naval Helicopter Aviation and 50 years of women in naval aviation.

Mayor Todd Gloria walked the route as the lead grand marshal. Other grand marshals rode in cars, including:

  • Twins Gary and Larry Soper, both double Purple Heart recipients from Vietnam.
  • Jack Ensch, a retired Navy captain and F-4 Phantom naval aviator who was shot down on his 285th combat mission of Vietnam on Aug. 25, 1972, and freed as a POW from Hanoi on March 29, 1973.
  • Joellen Oslund, a retired Navy captain and one of the first six women to become naval aviators. The Navy’s first female helicopter pilot, she was inducted into the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame in 2017.
  • George Sousa, a former Army corporal and a Purple Heart recipient who fought in the horrific battles at Bloody Ridge and Heartbreak Ridge in 1951.
  • Gary Ely, a former Navy petty officer who conducted an 18-month combat tour during the Vietnam War as a helicopter door gunner with the Helicopter Attack Squadron 3 (HAL-3) Vietnam.
  • And Brig. Gen. James Ryans, commander of San Diego’s Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego commanding general. A 35-year Marine veteran, he’s the recipient of the Bronze Star.

Kendro — who also does similar duty for the Holiday Bowl Parade — two years ago was named a local Veteran of the Month.

He was asked his favorite part of Sunday’s event, which ended with a huge inflatable eagle arriving near Seaport Village.

He said it was dealing with people like former POW Ensch and winners of the Distinguished Flying Cross like Royce Williams, who “finally gets to tell his story after 50 years when he shot down these Soviet MIGs. … We see their smiling faces and they get to interact with the crowd. That’s the best thing.”