Edwin McKinney rarely leaves home without covering his head with a ball cap identifying him as a World War II veteran. He has three different military hats—each one often attracting strangers to the 89-year-old. They thank him, shake his hand and buy him lunch, according to his daughter Tam Wright.
“He’s very proud of being a veteran,” she said.
One man, on a flight out of Charleston, even gave his first-class seat to McKinney.
“They let you know they appreciate your service,” he said.
But during her childhood, Wright said she never knew about her father’s military days. It was a separate life he kept hidden in the past—too difficult to share until recent years.
She said her father suffered “shell-shock” and other forms of post-traumatic stress disorder from combat—thunderstorms still reminding him of those traumatic days.
“(It) makes him feel like he’s in battle,” Wright said.
Only after McKinney came to live with her and her husband at their North Charleston home about two years ago—the aging Navy vet in need of medical care—that she started sifting through his medical files and other personal information, learning of his secret past.
“Other people help me appreciate (his service) because I guess I took it for granted because it never dawned on me,” Wright said.
According to McKinney, his story of entering the Navy is unique—and yet also one similar to others. He said it was common for teens back then to fib about their age and leave high school for the service. The military’s age requirement back then was 16. And in fall 1943, at just age 15, McKinney followed in his friends’ footsteps.
“I told a lie; the biggest lie you ever heard,” he said with a grin. “I heard so much about going, and all of my buddies were leaving school. …(The Navy) never knew my age, and I never told them because I was proud to know that I was able to do that.”
But first McKinney had to convince his father, a local schoolteacher, to sign the papers—after he convinced McKinney’s mother to let the couple’s only son at the time go off to combat.
“(My father) said, ‘OK, you sure this is what you want? You know it’s heavy over there don’t you?’ I said, ‘I know, but I think I can do what I need to do,’” McKinney said.
The young teen from Miami didn’t fear the possible ramifications of his decision because he said he couldn’t bear the alternative: sitting idly by as others around the world suffered genocide.
“In those days, you know, you had some crazy folks,” McKinney said. “You had some Hitlers and Mussolinis. …I wasn’t scared. I was mad, you know, because how you gonna go around killing people? You know, when you’re reading all this stuff…killings, shootings, and bombings…it gets to you. The poor Jews—I felt sorry for them. This bothered me quite a bit. All of us in those days wanted to do something about it.”
It’s that same compassionate spirit Wright said motivated her father in the years after the war to get involved with the Catholic Church and continue good works in the community, including help start the first Meals on Wheels chapter for the Los Angeles area.
“That’s his mantra,” Wright said. “He’s still like that; he cares about people.”
McKinney’s first stop with the Navy was boot camp in Bainbridge, Maryland, where he trained in heavy snowfall—the amateur sailor experiencing a season of sickness from the harsh weather. But McKinney’s fighting spirit prevailed as he prepared for worse-case scenarios, understanding his only two options during wartime were “killed or get killed—one of the two,” he said.
After training McKinney traveled from the East to the West Coast and picked up his first ship, the USS La Salle (AP-102) in Shoemaker, California, before sailing to a small batch of Pacific Islands near Japan. Their mission was to pick up a group of U.S. Marines that had been there prior, and transport them to Hawaii.
“(Then we) went into battle, battle, battle,” McKinney said.
During that time Japanese planes attacked his ship -the bombing forever affecting the teen.
“I was in combat; it is not nice because you got to kill, and you got to kill quick,” McKinney said. “There ain’t no waiting.”
McKinney survived more than one attack at sea, according to Wright. But he credited the Marines with helping keep the Navy from having to endure more fighting than they did.
“We were lucky because when we went onto a lot of locations the Marines had beat us (there)…so that cooled down a lot of killing on our side. That helped us out a lot,” McKinney said.
After one ship attack, McKinney was transported to a hospital for treatment. While he physically healed, his emotional health never returned to its original, affecting his ability to serve. About two years after he entered the Navy, McKinney was honorably discharged—exiting the military as a second mate.
Upon returning to his Florida home, his next life adventure became figuring out the right career. For a time McKinney attended barber school in Atlanta before moving to Los Angeles and making history as the first black man to own a pet grooming shop.
McKinney said a friend coaxed him into the job. But the role was short-lived as McKinney was forced to move to New York and take on the role of caregiver for his dying mother.
“She begged me, ‘Stop doing what you’re doing, and get ready to bury me,’” he said.
While in the Big Apple, McKinney became licensed to cut hair there, and he returned to his former barber stint. But it was L.A. he most loved, and so McKinney eventually moved back to the sunny coast to finish out his working years—retiring as a landscaper and gardener for the city.
Even in his later years McKinney has shown no signs of slowing down—still working in the yard and using the culinary skills he said he learned from his mom and the Navy.
“I have to tell him sometimes, ‘Dad, sit down and stop,’” Wright said.
McKinney’s face lit up when he described his favorite meal to share with family—red snapper, salad, and pigeon peas and rice.
Last year McKinney’s name was added to the honorable list of veterans engraved on Washington D.C.’s World War II memorial. Wright said it’s one of her top goals in the coming years to take her father to see it.
While many details of the war and his service have turned foggy in his mind, McKinney said he’ll never forget the day the Nazi regime was crushed.
“The day the war ended I thanked God,” he said.
Despite living with PTSD McKinney has never regretted serving. It’s remained one of his proudest contributions in life.
“It made me feel good that I was capable of being able to help and serve others,” he said. “It was a pleasure in a sense; and I still feel that way today.”
McKinney said the military taught him to love and respect the rights of all people—“a lesson that I will never forget.”
“I don’t think I will ever get over what really happened, and why it happened—because to me, it was all madness. I don’t ever want to see that again,” McKinney said.