Julius Woods still remembers the Japanese fighter pilot who insulted him.
It was 1945, the height of World War II, and Woods and his fellow sailors on the USS Van Valkenburgh had just shot down several Japanese fighter planes over the South Pacific. Some of the enemy pilots survived and were floating in the shark-infested water, but they refused to grab the lifebuoys the Americans threw to them. They preferred to drown or, worse, face the sharks.
But five airmen did come aboard. "I was standing on deck when they walked by," Woods recalls. "One of them gave me a dirty look and called me the N-word."
Today, 71 years later, Woods works as a security guard. He tends a guardhouse at the entrance to Belle Meade Island — a small, wealthy residential island in northeast Miami.
Residents there have dubbed him "The Mayor" because of his sociability and infectious personality. Several of them recently pooled their money to pay for Woods' daughter to chaperone him to Washington, D.C., October 29, where he'll be honored alongside 78 other WWII vets. The trip is being arranged by Honor Flight South Florida, which raises money to take local veterans to the capital for a tour of the war memorials and other events.
But the reporters and politicians who are expected to attend won't know Julius Woods. His biography isn't searchable online. His story has never been told.
At 90 years old, Woods uses eye drops for glaucoma but needs no other medication. He has lively eyes, laughs easily, and still puts in a 40-hour workweek. "As long as I feel good, I'll keep working," he says in a Florida drawl you don't often hear in Miami anymore.
His memory isn't what it used to be. Names are the hardest to recall. But some things he can't forget.
There's the terrifying moment a German U-boat torpedoed his ship in the East Atlantic and he had to scramble to secure the hatches to keep from sinking. There are the bodies of young sailors buried at sea because there was no space onboard to bring them all home. There are the powerful hurricanes that thrashed his ship. There are the faces of shipmates he avoided becoming friends with because they might be shot dead in front of him.
And there's the little brother he hasn't seen in nearly 70 years.
Then there's that Japanese pilot's hurtful insult. "That really got me," he says. "It always stayed with me."
The oldest of three kids, Woods got the short end of the sibling stick. He came into the world August 18, 1926, in Bradenton, Florida, and soon moved five counties north to the rural town of Raleigh, where his father was a sharecropper.
"Daddy Woods" was a caring but hard man who carried two pistols in his dungarees and refused to step off the sidewalk for white women, as was customary at the time. "Mama Woods," a domestic worker and strict disciplinarian, worried her husband would end up dead or in jail. Townspeople complained to the police about him, but the sheriff said there was nothing he could do.
At 5 years old, Woods began working alongside his dad in the fields. By age 7, it was his official job, reaping and sowing for 75 cents a day. But the family needed more help after his brother and sister came along. So at 10, Woods left school to work full-time. "I had no other choice," he says. "I had a great responsibility."
At 19, he joined the Navy, hoping to send wages home to his family. But life at sea wasn't much easier. Besides the danger, white and black sailors were segregated, and Woods was often relegated to working the ship's lower deck, supplying the white sailors above with ammunition and supplies.
After the Germans torpedoed his ship in the Atlantic, Woods was sent to the South Pacific, where he joined the battles of Okinawa, Saipan, and Iwo Jima. From offshore, his crew shot over the heads of American soldiers landing on the beaches, aiming to take out Japanese defenses. "I never knew if we killed anybody, and I don't want to know," he says.
Death, though, was everywhere, and Woods was witness to the largest mass killing in history. When the U.S. Air Force dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima August 6, 1945, Woods was 15 miles offshore, watching through binoculars. "Just a big cloud," he recalls. "We went in closer later, but there wasn't nothing to see. Everything gone."
Back in Daytona Beach, where Woods settled briefly after the war, he spent months ducking behind cars if he saw a flash of light or heard a loud noise. Walking by the airport one day, he saw a plane coming in to land and dove for cover.
"I really thought he was going to shoot," he laughs.
Hoping for steady work, Woods joined the Daytona Beach Police Department in 1948 and became one of just five black officers. But he didn't stick around long.
"It was real rough," he says. "The department was segregated. All we could do is patrol. We couldn't arrest a white person. We'd just try to detain them until a white officer arrived. And they didn't let us have guns. So I only stayed about three years; then I said, 'Enough of this.'"
In 1952, he headed south to Miami. People told him things were better there. "But it wasn't much better," Woods says. "You had to have ID to go to [Miami] Beach. And if you were caught at the Beach after dark, you were subject to arrest... And you couldn't get good jobs."
He did, however, find a good girl. He married her, had five children, and did what he had to do to support them.
He had a radio and TV repair shop on 79th Street for a couple of years. Then he worked in Overtown, where he lived, renting apartments to low-income families. But when a co-worker was shot and killed in a robbery nearby, he decided it was time to move. He bought a house in Miami Gardens and found work at Pittsburgh Plate Glass, where he rose to head supervisor and left with a retirement plan 20 years later.
Never having known life without work, though, he took a job with 50 State Security Service the year he turned 70.
Twenty years later, Woods is still there.
On a recent Saturday, he cheered on passing joggers from his guardhouse, bantered with garden crews, and regaled a small audience of residents with war stories and tales of the old South. "My thing is, I like people," he says. "I think everybody is a good person, even the bad ones. There's some good in everybody."
Veronica McDaniel, Woods' supervisor, says she can count the number of days Woods has missed work on one hand. "Even though my dad is alive, I call Mr. Woods ''Dad" because that is the way he makes everyone feel, as if they are his own. To know him is to love him," she says.
Denise Palacio, a Belle Meade resident who helped raise money for Woods' trip to the capital later this month, says, "He has this special kind of charisma... You can't help but light up when you see him because he's such a light."
Divorced since the mid-'90s, Woods lives alone in an apartment in North Miami. His son, also a Navy vet, thinks he should find another partner. "He keeps telling me to go out and play the field," Woods says. "I say, 'All my field is dead! The grass don't even grow on that field no more.'"
Meanwhile, Woods can't explain his vitality at 90 years old. He drives to work before 6 a.m., babysits his grandkids after an eight-hour shift, and runs errands the rest of the time. He just chalks it up to clean living.
"I never was a big drinker. Never smoked. I walk a mile now and then, but I don't do it regular enough. I'm lazy," he says.
It could be genes. His mother lived to 103. Or it could be something else.
"I don't know what it take to get me angry," he says. "I learned a long time ago, and I tell all young people, I don't care how bad anything is, if anything come up and you can handle it, handle it. If you can't, don't carry it on your shoulders. Let it go... Life goes on."
One thing does cause him sadness, though. His grandson Julian, like his father and grandfather, joined the Navy. In 2004, he was tending to a fallen soldier in Fallujah when someone ran up and shot him in the back of the head. He was 22 years old.
"It's a real torturing thing for me," Woods says. "That's the only thing that really make me emotional. And it really get to me now when I hear politicians talking about sending soldiers over to wipe this and that out. I'm deeply opposed to war."
War didn't just take his grandson. In a way, it took his immediate family too. After he came back from the Pacific, he lost track of his brother and sister.
"We just fell apart," he says. "After the war, we weren't a close family anymore. Everyone scattered. Everything went away."
Woods' father died while he was overseas. His mother moved, remarried, and had more children. He lost track of those half-siblings too. Many years later, he was able to find their phone numbers and get in touch, but they've never been close. He also reconnected with his sister, but she passed away 19 years ago, around the same time as his mother.
The whereabouts of his little brother Marvin, though, is still a mystery. Woods hasn't seen him since returning from the war nearly 70 years ago. Marvin was 19 at the time.
"He was moving around a lot," Woods says. "Staying in touch was hard back then."
Marvin would be 82 today. He was born in Williston, Florida. Woods doesn't know his brother's exact birthdate, and he has no middle name. Woods got a lead on him a few years ago. Someone mentioned seeing him in Wildwood, Florida. "But they didn't have details, and I wasn't able to follow through and find him," he says.
Woods is confident his brother is still alive. He has good genes, after all. If he's out there, Marvin is Woods' last link to Daddy and Mama Woods, to the fields of Raleigh, and to the family he worked so hard to support a long lifetime ago.
Standing outside his guardhouse recently, Julius Woods, the "Mayor of Belle Meade," wondered if someone might be able to track him down.
With lively eyes and a smile on his face, he said, "I'd really appreciate that."
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