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Les Downs

December 31, 1925 - October 10, 2019

U.S. Veteran
Obituary Viewed 855 times

We lost one of the last of the “greatest generation” on October 10, 2019, when our Dad, Leslie Russell Downs, 93, passed away peacefully at his home in Hope surrounded by family. He was a true legend!  Les was born December 31, 1925 in Monrovia, CA to Jack and Lily Downs, the older of two sons. He graduated from Monrovia High School in 1943. With WWII on, he joined the Naval Air Service as a Cadet in the V-12 program to become a Naval Aviator, which was his dream. His nonflight studies began at Cal Tech in Los Angeles and then proceeded to Flight Training at Glenview, Illinois for basic flight instruction. He first soloed with just six hours of flight time.  His training however was cut short and he was discharged from the Naval Service as WWII ended. It was not expected, but in 1949 as the Korean conflict began, he was contacted by the Navy to volunteer again. He was sworn in at Pensacola, FL in September 1949 to begin flight training anew. After rigorous flight and classroom time, he was commissioned a Navy Ensign, with his Wings of Gold in the spring of 1951. Not long after, he moved his wife, Marion and sons, Dennis and David to San Diego, CA to begin carrier landing qualification and then on to Alameda, CA for more training at NAS Fallon, NV. Things had really heated up in Western Pacific and Les was flown to Japan to join his first fighter squadron of F4U Corsairs.  In September he boarded the USS Bon Homme Richard and began combat flying over the Korean peninsula. After being thoroughly briefed about his first mission, away they flew to bomb railroad bridges in North Korea. He was flying on a mission when one of his fellow pilots was shot down. He and the other pilots began suppressive fire into enemy soldiers attempting to kill/capture the downed pilot. He stayed with his friend Brownie until the rescue/recovery was finished and then egressed to the carrier. For his gallantry, Les was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

A cruel turn of fate found him shot down after another raid and it was his turn to be stuck in North Korea on a mountain top for hours before he was rescued minutes from capture. He was badly burned and received the Purple Heart for his combat wounds. He and the squadron continued the fight and were then rotated back to the good Ole USA.

He came back with leave time available and was greeted by his lovely wife, two little boys and a brand new baby girl, Donna Lee.  He then transitioned into the Navy’s new jet fighter the F9F Panther, quite an upgrade from the propeller driven Corsair. After another period of demanding training in the new fighter, he was on his way back to Korea aboard USS Oriskany. It was to be a very difficult deployment   for he and his squadron mates. A new jet on an old, inadequate straight flight deck proved to be perilous. Five of his squadron mates were killed in combat or attempting safe landings aboard their carrier. War is hell!!!

Upon his return, the family packed up and moved to Monterey, CA where now Lt. Downs attended the Navy Post Graduate school. There he studied and received his degrees in Meteorology and Oceanography as the Navy was cross training its young officers. Les’ first nonflying billet was as a weather officer at NAS Agana, Guam. When possible, he continued to fly at every opportunity in the new F9F-6 Cougar as well as Navy seaplanes based there to keep his flying skills and flight pay. He spent nearly three years there with his growing family and was then transferred to NAS North Island in San Diego. Here he continued to play an important role for the armed forces at the fleet weather facility. He was promoted to Lt. Commander there and after another tour with greater responsibility, he Honorably retired in 1967 after serving for 22 years. Interestingly, at the end of his career he and his son Dennis were both in the Navy for three days, 27 June to 30 June 1967. It was quite a career for LCDR Leslie Russell Downs, serving his country well!!!  He was a TRUE PATRIOT!!!

Les met Marion Burtch (from Chicago, IL), his wife of 65 years at the Santa Anita Racetrack where he was employed. They had 10 children in 14 years, living in numerous locations due to his Naval career including Denver, Pensacola, Monterey, and Guam, before finally settling in San Diego, where they resided for 31 years. In 1989, after retiring from his “2nd favorite career” managing the Brookside Winery with Marion, they decided to move to “God’s country”, Hope, Idaho.

Les was proceeded in death by his parents, his beloved wife, Marion, his younger brother Stanley, daughter Debby Hopkins (Tracy and Kristy), and son Tommy. He is survived by his sons, Dennis (wife Peggy, grandchildren Jeff and Missy), David (wife Kathy), daughters Donna Turnbull (husband Bob, grandchildren Robbie and Timmy), Teresa Downs (Camille, Jamey, Leslie, Joey, Jean Luc and Maddie), Tina Corbett (Kyle and Ryan), sons Timmy (Carleen), Billy (Lisa, Macy and Georgie), Bobby (wife Kimberly, grandchildren Tyler, Aubry, and Kayle) and numerous great grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Les will also be missed by his faithful caregiver, Robini, who took loving care of him the past 8 months of his life. In retirement, Les enjoyed the game of golf, marshalling at Hidden Lakes, and passed the love of the game to his grandsons. He also enjoyed playing bridge with his buddies and having breakfast with friends. He loved life on Lake Pend Oreille, as the “harbor master” and attributed his longevity to his love of wine and cigars…..His toast, known by all who were fortunate enough to be present at his dinner table was ”Salud, amor, y pesetas; y tiempo para gastarlas!” Translation: health, love and wealth, and the time to enjoy all three!! And he lived by that! Cheers to a GREAT MAN!!

A celebration of Les’ life will be held in the spring.