Corn Flakes Saved His Life

Pearl Harbor Day.

That time when a bowl of cornflakes saved the life of Hunter Mendenhall.

As a teenager, I only knew Mr. Mendenhall as the quiet and friendly father of my good friend Karen Mendenhall. It was his wife, Donna, the daughter of Italian immigrants from Boston who would always engaged me in conversation.  She was a dark-haired slip of a woman. She had that movie glamorous look to her, what with her wide brown eyes and full red lips. It was hard to imagine her giving birth to five kids.

The two oldest were out of the house by the time I befriended her youngest daughter. A cheerleader at Columbus High, who was the delight of her daddy’s eyes. Karen possessed her father’s disarming charm and sweet spirit and his wickedly funny sense of humor.

Mr. Mendenhall was a teacher across the river in Alabama in those years. He was a ‘Bama boy through and through. A proud graduate of Auburn University. He once told me he grew up in “Plum Nealy.” Plum out in the woods and nealy out of the country. Hunter loved to eat dove on toast and would trap the squirrels in the backyard and give them to the country folks who liked to eat squirrel. I ate squirrel once myself, served to me by Ms. Hazel Howell of Mississippi. I had no idea the meat in the brunswick stew was squirrel until the local DA who was sitting beside me asked Mrs. Hazel what meat she used.

A tall and lean man, Mr. Mendenhall’s smile could light up a city block. He had that easy way of walking and intentional way of talking. He conserved energy in both. It was his laughter that he was most generous with. He loved to tease folks, and a well-timed joke was his skill set. He adored his children, and the neighbor’s children and by the time I got grown and had children of my own, he adored them, too. Mr. Mendenhall introduced my kids to Golden Donuts, which, as everyone in Columbus, Georgia, knows, is a hometown speciality. My kids have kids of their own kids now but they still talk about Mr. Mendenhall and those donuts.

But it was cornflakes that saved Hunter Mendenhall’s life on that fateful Dec. 7th morning.

He was a young man then, a sailor boy in the N-A-V-Y. (Sing it with me: ‘Cause my Sailor Boy went Ship Ahoy and joined the N-A-V-EEEE).

Aboard the USS West Virginia, he’d pulled KP duty the night of December 6th, working the kitchen until breakfast the next morning. By the time 7:30 rolled around, the young fella was exhausted. He left his station and went to his bunk. Seeing how he was so tall, he had the top bunk.

He crawled into it without even changing out of his clothes. That’s how tired he was. But just as he was starting to doze off, his stomach began to growl. He tossed about for a minute or two, arguing with himself over whether he ought to get up and eat something his own self before going to sleep, but he was so tired already, he didn’t want to get up. This back-and-forth went on until finally his growing stomach convinced him to get up and head back to the mess hall to grab a bowl of cornflakes.

It was that bowl of cornflakes that saved that young man’s life.

He was climbing up the steps after finishing that bowl of cornflakes when the first of the bombs exploded. Had he been in his bunk he would have been dead or at the very least severely injured.

The day Hunter Mendenhall told me that story was the most I’d ever heard him talk. He went on to tell me that surviving Pearl Harbor wasn’t the only part he played in World War II. He’d also done his part in the Guadalcanal campaign, aboard the USS San Francisco and at Midway aboard the USS Harding.

Mr. Mendenhall didn’t walk about boasting of his years of service. You’d never find him saddled up to a bar, retelling old war stories. He only told me because I was recording it for his children, so that they’d know the stories he was reluctant to relive, or even retell.

I’ve been to Pearl Harbor, and read the names inscribed there. The last family photo I have with my own father was taken at Punchbowl, that Hill of Sacrifice, where over 13,000 fallen from WWII are buried. I am sure many of you have been to Pearl Harbor and read those names, too.

Hunter Mendenhall isn’t the only World War II veteran to share his story with me. I’ve had the honor over the years of retelling the stories of several of these veterans. A POW who kept a diary throughout his internment. A paratrooper who was dropped from a plane over Normandy. One who served alongside Jimmy Doolittle.

When I wrote the story of Zebulon Hurd in the Mother of Rain series, it was their stories I drew from.

And whenever Pearl Harbor Day rolls around, it is Mr. Mendenhall I recall with a particular respect and fondness.

He was a true patriot, and in every sense of the term, a goodhearted man.

I miss his stories and his jokes.


Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain, Burdy, and Christian Bend (Mercer University Press). 


Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.

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