If you found yourself near Peninsula Hardware in Palo Alto's Midtown Shopping Center between the years of 1984 and 2016, you might have spotted World War II veteran Charles Scott biking to the store. But Scott wouldn’t have been heading there for supplies. Instead, he’d be on his way to clock in for his twice-weekly shifts.
Before he was ringing up purchases at the now-closed hardware store, he started his working life doing a very different job: He was a radio operator for the U.S. Navy.
Scott, now 99 years old, is set to be honored for his service by city officials this Saturday, Nov. 11, at VA Palo Alto Health Care, with a quilt of honor created by the South Bay Blue Star Moms.
He had a storied career serving as a radio operator during World War II on submarines with the Navy, and later with the U.S. Coast Guard where he was awarded two life saving citations for detecting communications from sinking vessels and managing maritime rescues in Alaska.
Scott is one of few living World War II veterans today, who spoke of his time in the service with pride.
“It was an honor,” Scott told this publication.
The Navy and Coast Guard
Scott first started his career with the U.S. Navy fresh out of high school. A registered member of the Cherokee nation, he initially attempted to enlist in the military at the age of 16 while he was a student at a vocational school, Haskell Indian Boarding School (now known as Haskell Indian Nations University, a land-grant university in Kansas).
But after being told by a recruiting officer that he was too young, he waited until his graduation in 1943 and tried again, this time enlisting successfully and serving as a radioman on various submarines and submarine tenders during World War II.
Scott, who is over 6 feet tall, spoke of the height restrictions that submarine crew members faced at the time, given how cramped the vessels were back then.
“The bunk beds were manufactured for the maximum height of 5 foot 8, and my feet were sticking out in the passenger way,” he said.
When the war ended, Scott was still aboard the USS Shad, which was based somewhere in the Pacific Ocean near the Marshall Islands. He said he was the first person on the vessel to hear the news of the war ending, as he was in charge of communications with his superiors on the mainland. Aboard the USS Shad, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in 1945, he told his captain and crew of the news he read in Morse code.
“I realized that the ticker tape said the war was over and the armistice had been signed, and I was the first one that knew it,” he said. “So we went over and told the captain, and the captain called all hands into the crew's quarters and broke out all of the medical alcohol that was aboard and all of the soft drinks, and we each had a little bit of celebration.”
Fast forward a couple years, Scott had transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard, based out of Alaska, with his family. His youngest daughter, Judy Scott, who is now a professor emeritus at University of California at Santa Cruz, told this publication of her parents’ decision to eventually relocate to Palo Alto, since they were unable to find a good school for her oldest brother to attend in rural Alaska.
“My brother skipped first grade, and the teachers called my parents into the school and said, basically, that they needed to get him to a good school system because they couldn't educate him well enough on Kodiak Island,” she said. “So because they couldn't skip him twice and he needed to go into a gifted program, my mother did a bunch of research and they ended up in the Palo Alto schools.”
The move to California
Retiring from his career with the Navy and Coast Guard, Scott worked for some time at Lockheed Martin while his children grew up.
He first moved to Palo Alto in 1960, well before it became known as a tech hub. Over the years he’s watched fields become neighborhoods, drive-in movie theaters become parks, and his children become adults.
Judy Scott said her dad bought their Midtown home in 1960 for just $17,000 and still lives there today. After leaving Lockheed at age 59, he went on to spend over 30 years as a clerk at Peninsula Hardware, which he would travel to by bike twice a week.
“He’s the only person I know who was 85 years old and got a new bike,” Judy Scott said of her father’s time at the hardware store.
Scott also became an active member of the community after moving to Palo Alto, establishing a group of his neighbors as the Midtown Residents Association. The group, particularly Scott and his late wife, Jean Scott, launched a protracted 40-year battle to build what is now Greer Park over what was once a drive-in movie theater.
When the park was finally completed in 2010, the city of Palo Alto and the Midtown Residents Association honored the Scotts' contributions with a plaque in the last 1.5 acres of the space.
"It means that Jean's vision is finally realized,” he told this publication in 2010 when the park was finished.
Named “Scott Meadow,” the plaque reads, “Named in honor of Jean and Charles Scott for their perseverance and tenacity in establishing Greer Park!”
Given his involvement in local government, former Palo Alto City Council members often used to encourage him to run, but he declined, he said.
“I said I can't do it because my skin is too thin,” he said. “I don't want to get up there to get insulted by the public.”
While he doesn’t keep up with local government as much these days, Scott said he’s still an active member of the church he joined when he first came to Palo Alto, Covenant Presbyterian Church. And despite being from the Midwest, Scott didn’t show any signs of regret for having moved here over 60 years ago.
“They just developed a huge community in Palo Alto through the church and through the residents association, and you know, we all grew up there,” his daughter said. “So it just became home.”