SAN DIEGO — A Navy pilot who sacrificed himself to save nearly 700 people 60 years ago was honored during a ceremony Saturday morning.
A plaque commemorating Ensign Albert Joseph Hickman was added to the Mt. Soledad National Veterans Memorial. Hickman was 21 years old when the F3H Demon he was piloting malfunctioned and began going down near Nathaniel Hawthorne Elementary School on December 4, 1959.
Instead of ejecting, Hickman stayed with the aircraft and piloted it away from the school. He died in the crash but saved nearly 700 people, most of them children.
Debra Dawson, who was only 8 years old at the time, still remembers witnessing the crash.
“It was about noontime; we were on the playground,” Dawson said. “I heard something that made me stop playing and look into the direction of the sound. As I did, I saw the jet coming down in a very controlled glide. It came down just beyond the fence on the other side of the playground.”
Dawson said the reality of what she had seen hit her when she saw a large fireball. “There were children screaming,” she said. “I’m sure one of them was me.”
Because of Hickman’s sacrifice that day, Dawson was able to grow up and have two children. Saturday morning — nearly 60 years after the crash — she recounted her story at the ceremony when Hickman’s plaque was added to the memorial.
“A 21-year-old man had the wherewithal and the compassion in his heart and the heroism in his soul not to bail out, not to save himself, but to save a playground and a school full of children and teachers,” Dawson said to the crowd of people in attendance.
She teared up multiple times throughout her speech as she expressed gratitude to the man who died so she and her classmates could live. “It’s an honor for me to be able to finally put into words exactly how I have felt all my life about Ensign Hickman,” Dawson said.
Hickman was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the highest non-combat medal awarded for heroism. Hickman Elementary School in Mira Mesa was also named in his honor, as was Hickman Field in Kearny Mesa.