The late Charles Sprague McCandless of Los Altos Hills lived a long life with dual careers as an engineer and real estate developer. A family man, he had four children with his wife, Jean, a respected artist. He was also a World War II veteran, but he kept those experiences under wraps. Like many veterans of the era, he didn’t talk about his service.
Still, his love of history and frequent reading of WWII accounts foreshadowed his next move as he entered his 70s. He began writing his memoirs in the late 1980s. His daughter, Sandra McCandless Simons, inspired by his recollections, edited them and published a book, “A Flash of Green: Memories of World War II” – the title a reference to the beautiful sunsets he witnessed on South Pacific islands – intended for family and friends.
In 2014, Sandra took the book public. And just last year, her husband, CB Simons, and respected filmmaker Ed Nachtrieb made “A Flash of Green” into a 42-minute documentary – one that competed for an award nomination last month at the 12th annual Chagrin Documentary Film Festival in Ohio. The film placed runner-up to a Steven Spielberg production.
“It turned out so well,” said Sandra, who with CB lives in the McCandless family home in Los Altos Hills. “We’re all very happy about it. We wanted to do something for the family.”
McCandless, who died in 2001 at age 83, “was a great father,” Sandra said. “As a woman, he told me I could do anything I wanted; he always supported me.”
That can-do spirit served McCandless well during the war. As a civil engineer and officer with the 51st Naval Construction Battalion, he quipped, “We can do the difficult, the impossible takes a little longer.”
A demolition specialist, McCandless and his teams transformed untamed island terrain into serviceable airfields – often under horrific conditions. He found himself in the middle of historic battles at Midway, Guadalcanal, Peleliu and Iwo Jima.
“I was amazed at what he’d gone through, and that he even lived through it,” Sandra says in the film. “Mother said he had had nightmares for 10 years but never talked about it with her, never talked about the war with us – we knew nothing. So it was a revelation.”
The tales of this 1939 Stanford University engineering grad read like a riveting adventure novel. The film replicates the relentless turn of events in the book, using dramatic war footage and many unique images taken by McCandless himself.
McCandless described himself as “the luckiest man alive” after several close calls – he was injured but survived the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The film shows the exact spot where McCandless was when the USS Arizona blew up in the attack – he was roughly 500 feet away.
In 1942, after the battle of Midway, he was shot down on his first combat mission as a pilot, parachuting into the Pacific Ocean. Later that year, he crashed a sputtering plane into the jungle, just short of Henderson Field at Guadalcanal, suffering head injuries. He had successful brain surgery to treat seizures.
While recuperating in Oakland, McCandless rekindled a relationship with childhood friend Jean Birkland. They were married in May 1943. Then he returned to action in the Pacific.
The Battle of Iwo Jima, which left 7,000 U.S. soldiers killed over 36 days in 1945, was particularly brutal. With little training, McCandless was assigned to lead an underwater demolition team to clear obstacles, swimming amid heavy fire. He somehow emerged unscathed even as numerous comrades around him lost their lives.
On a few occasions, McCandless questioned decisions that put him and his men in harm’s way. And he wasn’t afraid to admit he was scared.
Sandra recalled him saying he had to sit on his trembling hands at Iwo Jima so that his men couldn’t see how scared he was. Even so, McCandless said he “never lost my head and never lost hope.”
After the war, McCandless found success as an engineer and developer. He served as the first engineer for the town of Los Altos Hills, where he and his family had settled in the 1950s. Later, he founded McCandless Management Corp., a major development and commercial real estate management firm.
“Charles was universally respected in the business community,” CB said. “His legacy in that realm is visible and a source of family pride. His wartime path was equally admirable, but would not be easily accessible to future generations of his family nor be known to others. I wanted to make sure that not only would his family know about Charles’ courage and ability, but it’s a story that should be shared with all Americans.”
Sandra said McCandless’ book and film carry personal messages that resonate beyond standard World War II histories.
“Instead of just reading about battles and strategies, you could read about somebody’s experiences and the consequences of war,” she says in the film. “Ordinary people do extraordinary things and have done for generations to keep our country safe and our freedom.”