90-year-old WWII Veteran finds Valentine's Day fame

CORONADO, Calif. - A 90-year-old World War II veteran has found sudden fame in a new ad campaign nearly seven decades after he stayed at the Hotel Del Coronado as a pilot.

"We flew all day and chased girls all night," said Stanley Abele, recalling his days as a young pilot and the six months he stayed at the hotel before WWII. "You can't beat that situation."

It all started with a snapshot -- a then-22-year-old Abele with his arms around his date, sitting on the beach in front of the Hotel Del Coronado. The photo was taken 70 years ago, before Abele was deployed in the war.

"It's one of the happiest times of my life," said Abele. "It has a sweet spot in my heart."

For many pilots housed at The Del, it was the good times before tragedy to come. Abele survived the famous kamikaze attack on USS Bunker Hill, between Okinawa and Japan. Two planes crashed, causing a huge explosion as planes and oil burned.

"I hear an airplane, I look up and I see a kamikaze headed right at me," said Abele. "I can still see the streaks on the bottom of the fuselage. The explosion … the smoke was very bad, very dense. Full of junk, full of particulates."

Archival video shows the plumes of choking black smoke being sucked under by USS Bunker Hill's ventilation system. Hundreds perished below deck, and only men with gas masks survived beneath. Above, Abele's plane lay in ruins, with only the propellers left from many aircraft as they burned.

Abele jumped into the water, floating in the freezing ocean for six hours before he was rescued. His best friend, Gene Powell, wasn't as lucky.

"There were 300, 400 bodies stacked up," said Abele. "I'm lifting up the canvas covers looking for Gene. They were so badly burned I couldn't see … I stopped when I pulled up a cover and the man's arm fell off."

Joe Ditler, a Coronado historian, told 10News the attack on the USS Bunker Hill was one of the deadliest of WWII, but it's also a story of survival.

"The fact that Stanley Abele survived is nothing short of a miracle," said Ditler.

Ditler also said many don't realize The Del housed scores of pilots before they deployed, and many families who used the days left to say goodbye.

"It was the time of their lives and then within a year, most of them weren't alive," said Ditler. "Women flocked around the pilots; it's where they came to catch a pilot. And how wonderful that after all these years, Stanley is popular again."

After 70 years, to be exact, that snapshot on the beach has resurfaced. It is being used in hotel's Valentine's Day ads and in a book, "Celebrating a Century of Romance at the Hotel Del Coronado."

"I'm not used to being a celebrity," said Abele, laughing heartily.

Now 90, Abele says people stop him for his autograph.

"Everybody goes, 'Is that you?' Yeah, that's me," said Abele.

He said, for many reasons, he's lucky to be alive.

"If I am a celebrity, I'm going to enjoy it," said Abele.

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