One of the most remarkable people I’ve had the privilege of knowing was my Uncle Ralph, affectionately known as “Sarg Hubbard”. Technically a great-uncle, he was my father’s uncle, a ‘late life’ child born to older parents who already had three ‘grown’ sons and a daughter. He was only ten years older than my dad, his nephew. I met Uncle Ralph in my twenties when I moved back to the west coast and went to visit him in Yakima where he lived. He was genuine and unpretentious, rich in stories, quick-witted, and generous and caring to anyone he knew.
Ralph was born March 7, 1909 into a poor family in Ballard, WA, a neighborhood in Seattle. His father was a shingle mill worker. Uncle Ralph used to say, “When the tide went out we had dinner.” Early in life he worked for the Dollar Steamship Company and was sent to China. He returned to the United States and after attending college, where he met and married his wife Helen, he worked for a while for the W.P. Fuller Co., then signed up for the Army in 1940. In 1942 he transferred to the Army Air Corp and signed on with The American Volunteer Group (AVG) of the Chinese Air Force, nicknamed the Flying Tigers, under the command of Lt. General Claire Lee Chennault.
Ralph, with his wry humor, would say he did “cloak and dagger work” for Chennault. He was Chennault’s espionage man and did considerable flying in China, working with Chennault’s staff on strategic planning to stop the Japanese invasion of China. He attributed his previous experience in China as a civilian to his assignment for doing intelligence work. The Flying Tigers, heroes of WWII, had several movies made about their courageous deeds. The fascinating history of the Flying Tigers can be found on this forum: The Flying Tigers.
After 8 years in active military, he remained in the Air Force reserves, serving many years as the commanding officer of Yakima’s 9405th Air Reserve Squadron, in 1958 named the outstanding air reserve squadron in the nation. He retired at the mandatory age of 60 as a colonel. He said he didn’t think anyone would believe he was a colonel so he told them he was a “mess hall sergeant” and they would say “that figures.” Thus the nickname Sarg.
Though Ralph was a humble, self-effacing man, he was a legend in his own time. Active in the Washington State Reclamation Association, working both in Olympia and Washington D.C., he was instrumental in preventing water from the Columbia River from being diverted to the southwest, thus putting at risk water resources for Washington farmers. The WSRA archives contain an interview of him detailing his influence and activities with the WSRA.
After retiring from the military he opened an army surplus store in Yakima known locally as simply “Sarg’s”. It was not so much army surplus as it was hiking, climbing and outdoor gear. He also provided picking bags, made at the Washington Tenting and Awning Company he owned with his son Walt, as well as other equipment needed by fruit pickers in eastern Washington’s orchards. Sarg’s Store was a destination shopping experience for anyone planning an excursion into the Cascade Mountains. (My first and only cowboy boots, a pair of hiking boots, and my first down sleeping bag came from Sarg’s). He himself was an avid mountain climber, climbing all the major Washington peaks, including 10 ascends up Mt Adams in ten years. As a ham radio operator, he was in charge of setting up the communications between climbers for the annual Yakima Chamber of Commerce sponsored Mt. Adams climb. He was able to ‘patch’ one young woman with her mother in New England so she could talk to her on the phone while on Mt Adams (this was decades before cell phones!). He guided several parties on Mt. Rainier, including a group that included Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, also from Yakima and a fellow environmentalist (back when they were called conservationist.)
The list of community service activities Sarg was involved in, taking leadership in many of them, is long. His list of stories and witticism even longer. He was often asked to speak at functions, endorse candidates, be in radio and newspaper ads. He always had time for family and friends. In his last years of life, struggling with ALS, which eventually was the cause of his death, he would still go see “the old man” he visited every day who was home bound. I remember a visit with him when he was barely able to talk from the effects of ALS, but still he went for his one-mile swim at the local pool, a habit established after an earlier heart attack, and went to see his friend. Though a community leader, he was a one-on-one sort of guy and helped many people in the Yakima community. His employees were his extended family and he was generous and supportive of them and their families. He was always forthcoming in conversations we had and I loved talking with him, appreciating his philosophy about life, people, politics, religion, and his endless wit.
Memorial Day is about remembering the people who died in war. Uncle Ralph did not die in WWII and went on to live a life dedicated to humanitarian and civic service. I do not doubt his life was endangered, given the nature of the assignments he had as a member of the Flying Tigers. What a loss to so many people, the Yakima community and Washington State had he been shot down and killed. For every life loss during a war there are ripples through the lives of others. Lost possibilities. Lost dreams. Memorial Day is a time not only to remember those who died, but to support and advocate for peace and peaceful resolutions to conflicts so lives can be spared and those possibilities fulfilled.
(thanks to the Washington State Reclamation Association for their archival information on Ralph Hubbard, and to my cousin Shaun for the family photo.)