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11/11/10 5:53 PM EST

Marines, not baseball, Coleman's proudest days

NEW YORK -- Jerry Coleman wore the Yankees' pinstripes for nine seasons, patrolling the infield dirt in front of the frenzied World Series crowds that filled a triple-decked stadium.

But on Veterans Day, Coleman remains the proudest of his service in a different uniform -- that of the United States Marine Corps.

"Quite honestly, the most important time of my life was the five years I spent in the Marine Corps, no question about it," said the 86-year-old Coleman. "If you struck out in baseball, you came back and gave it another shot. If you struck out in the Marine Corps, you're done."

The only Major Leaguer to see combat in both World War II and the Korean War (Ted Williams, for one, served in both wars, but he was a flight instructor during World War II), Coleman returned this week to New York, where he suited up for the Yankees from 1949-57.

Coleman served as a grand marshal for Thursday's New York City Veterans Day Parade, promoting public awareness about the National Spirit of '45 Day, to be held on Aug. 14 each year -- the date World War II ended.

"It's a tremendous honor," Coleman said before the parade. "When you consider over 400,000 men and women were killed in World War II, my whole role here is the Spirit of '45. People don't realize what it was like then. You couldn't do anything or buy anything or go anyplace. You had to fight through it and get to a better era.

"And with these kids in Iraq and Afghanistan, any time we're threatened in this country, there are people that come to the aid. That's why I think that every generation, in my opinion, is the greatest generation."

Coleman flew more than 120 missions in World War II and Korea, sacrificing a large part of a promising baseball career. He was a 17-year-old in San Francisco holding offers for baseball and basketball scholarships to USC when Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941.

"I was a senior in high school," Coleman recalled. "The principal called in all the senior boys to the auditorium. We wondered what was going on. All of a sudden from the back of the auditorium came these two naval aviators, whose wings looked about 15 feet wide and solid gold."

Coleman's classmates were soon discussing what branch of the service they might head for, believing at the time that the Japanese could invade Hawaii and then California. Coleman opted for a career as a naval aviator and never looked back.

"I was young. I thought it was wonderful, and of course, I was invincible," Coleman said. "You know that, at that age, no one can get you. You're going to win the war single-handedly."

Coleman was one of the fortunate ones in World War II, flying his missions in the Solomon Islands without major incident. The end of the fighting allowed him to return to the baseball field, where the Yankees were waiting.

"I remember when I got the word, I was home on leave and I thought, 'Well, what am I going to do now?'" Coleman said. "So I thought I'd give baseball a shot again, and that's how it all started."

But Coleman's days in the service were not complete. After the 1951 World Series, Coleman was summoned by a superior officer in Alameda, Calif. Coleman thought at first the meeting was an informal lunch. It turned out to be a second tour.

Because few naval aviators had been trained after 1945, pilots were needed to serve in Korea. Coleman hoped to miss just one baseball season, but he spent most of 1952 and '53 in the cockpit.

There were two close calls in Korea that nearly cost Coleman his life. On one mission, Coleman's radio went out and he was forced to land his Corsair attack bomber in heavy cloud cover. Another crippled jet was also headed in at the same time.

"Apparently he had a flameout right above our field, so both of us were on the same runway at the same time," Coleman said. "He had so much more speed than I had and he went right over the top of me, went down to the end and blew up. That was the end of him, I'm sorry to say."

An even tighter escape took place when the motor of Coleman's plane failed a hundred feet above the K-6 runway in Korea, with 3,000 pounds of bombs on board.

"I'm chugging along and pop into the air, and the engine stops cold," Coleman said. "I realize at some point that I'm not going to make it. Bombs don't blow up unless they're armed, so I let my bombs go. Bombs are flying all over the runway, and I'm going down. I hit the end.

"I still remember my knees being behind my ears, my hands were pinned to the side, and my strap didn't pop. I'm being choked. I passed out, and the next thing I knew, they'd pulled me out. If they hadn't gotten to me in a hurry, I'd have suffocated."

For his service in Korea, Coleman brought home two Distinguished Flying Crosses, though he said they hold little significance.

"I think there were others that were probably more deserving and didn't get them," Coleman said. "Maybe they did, I don't know. It wasn't the idea of the medals that really meant anything. What it really meant was that the war was over."

Still enjoying his time in the game as baseball's oldest active play-by-play announcer with the Padres, Coleman is just grateful to have come home safely.

With 100 members of the Greatest Generation marching Thursday in New York along with children representing all 50 states, Coleman hopes that the youth of America will honor the memory of their vets by committing to 100 or more hours of service in their name.

"There are two important things in life to me, and of course I'm 86 years old, so I look at it differently than I did at 26," Coleman said. "The two important things to me are the people you love, and who love you, and your country. There's not a lot worth much more."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.