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RSF student honors WWII veteran in prize-winning Flying Leatherneck contest essay

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R. Roger Rowe Middle School student Luke Renda won third place in the Flying Leatherneck Historical Foundation essay contest. Luke is seen here with Major Glenn Ferguson and his teacher Elaine Dolnack.
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R. Roger Rowe sixth grader Luke Renda recently won third place in the countywide Flying Leatherneck Historical Foundation essay contest.

At the Jan. 13 Rancho Santa Fe School District board meeting, Luke was honored for his accomplishment by the founder of the Flying Leatherneck essay contest, U.S. Marine Corps Major Glenn Ferguson, a 97-year-old World War II fighter pilot, Korean War MASH pilot and Marine One pilot for President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The contest encourages students to develop and improve their thinking and writing skills as they address core values of the U.S. Marine Corps: honor, courage and commitment. The question for this year’s contest was: “Who is your hero and why?” The answer to that question was easy for Luke as his hero is his 95-year-old great-grandfather Harley John Bridger, a World War II veteran.

“My hero is a man who showed bravery and courage during a time of intense fear and never gave up on his crew while risking his life,” Luke wrote.

For his third-place essay in the middle school division, Luke received a plaque and $100 prize, and his English teacher Elaine Dolnack received a check for $300. There were over 600 submissions in this year’s contest, hosted in partnership by the Flying Leatherneck Historical Foundation and the University of San Diego’s Character Education Resource Center.

Known to Luke’s family as H.J. or Harter, his great-grandfather was a technical sergeant in the Army Air Force and flew the B-24 Liberator in World War II. Part of a 10-man crew, he was a radio operator and flew 35 missions over parts of Hungary and Germany from 1944 to 1945.

“Witnessing several planes get shot down, the fear of his own crew suffering the same fate was always on his mind,” Luke wrote. “Miraculously, all 10 men of his crew came home from the war and three are still living today.”

Luke wrote about hearing Harter’s “war stories,” such as one night operation when the Germans had fired so much artillery into the sky that it created a “foggy, black haze” that made it impossible for his great-grandfather to figure out where to drop bombs.

“Most of Harter’s friends in the other bombing crews never made it back from these heinous missions. Every mission, the crew knew somebody would get shot down; they just didn't know whom,” Luke wrote. “Harter once told me that the take-offs for each mission were the scariest part. The fear of the unknown.”

Luke wrote that he knows how lucky he is that Harter is around to share his incredible stories and teach him life lessons. Bridger still mows his own lawn at his home in Searcy, Arkansas, and did his customary 10 birthday push-ups when he turned 95 in November.

“My hero made sacrifices to fight for his country,” Luke wrote. “A young man, he left behind his family and loved ones. I have learned from him that having courage means you have to persevere and do what you have to do even when fear is consuming you.”