Alaska veterans get VIP treatment

mdunham@adn.comNovember 9, 2013 

Mike Hunt flew "everything in the inventory" in World War II. He shuttled planes across the Atlantic, over the "Hump" into China and from Canada to Ladd Field in Fairbanks over workers cutting the Alcan Highway through raw wilderness.

Last month he let an Alaska Airlines crew do the flying as he joined 28 other Alaska veterans in an "Honor Flight" to Washington, D.C. They visited monuments and memorials, and were wined, dined and cruised in a whirlwind tour that wrapped up with a celebratory reception on their return to Anchorage on Oct. 26.

"It was awesome," Hunt said. "They treated us like a VIP. "

When the plane's captain announced who was on the flight, the rest of the passengers burst into applause. While visiting the monuments, strangers came up and shook the vets' hands. Wherever they went they were greeted as heroes.

"There must have been 300-400 waiting when we got off in Washington, clapping and saying, 'Thanks for your service,'" said Anchorage-born Jacob Knapp, who spent his tour of duty in the Aleutians.

"The gratitude we were given by all the people we met was overwhelming at times," said Al Hershberger of Soldotna, who served in Europe under Gen. George Patton.

"I never thought that being a war veteran would mean anything," said Conrad F. Ryan Sr. of Metlakatla, another veteran of the Aleutian campaign. "But I couldn't believe what people did to help us."

"I felt so good. I had to ask myself, am I dreaming?" said Manuel Norat, who left his family farm in Puerto Rico to serve in World War II and received a Purple Heart after being wounded in the Korean War. "There was something about the experience that just penetrates you."

Headquartered in Springfield, Ohio, the national Honor Flight Network has arranged for something like 100,000 veterans to go on such tours since 2005, shortly after the World War II monument was dedicated. Alaska veterans had participated in similar trips before, but the October flight is said to be the first to consist entirely of Alaskans.

The Last Frontier Honor Flight organization, the Alaska "wing" of the program, got its start when Ron Travis of Big Lake was visiting his late mother in a rest home in Washington state. "One of the residents was a gentleman who had gone on an Honor Flight from Spokane," Travis said. "He started bending my ear about it. As it turned out, there wasn't a hub in Alaska, so I gathered up some friends at Big Lake and we decided to make it happen."

That meant raising money with barbecues and raffles. The affair cost about $80,000, said Terry Archibald, the group's vice president. That covered air and ground transportation, hotels, meals and a cruise past Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Each veteran had an escort, either a family member or a volunteer, to accompany them. The escorts -- called "guardians" -- paid their own way.

Each vet had a wheelchair loaned from Geneva Woods Pharmacy, "Whether we needed it or not," Al Woodward observed with a little smile.

Woodward, a Navy pilot during the war, and most participants were able to walk, but they found the chairs convenient at one point or another, either as a place to sit, a walker or as a luggage cart. Elvin "Slim" Brush, the oldest person on the flight at 94 -- the youngest was 86 -- said the chairs served another purpose. "They kept everyone together. It was smart," he said.

Brush is credited with piloting a B-24 bomber on 52 combat missions over Europe. He regularly attends reunions of his old bomber group and is familiar with what can go wrong on such occasions. "It's not easy to take [a trip with] a large group of old, disabled, infirm people -- which is what we are -- and get us all back." But, he stressed, the Last Frontier wing did "a heck of a fine job," especially given that it was the group's first flight.

He also praised the treatment the vets received from Alaska Airlines, though he acknowledged teasing one pilot over a rough landing.

Because of the distance, organizers arranged for overnight layovers in Portland coming and going. Once in Washington, wake up calls came at 6 a.m., with everyone on the bus by 8 a.m. for a full schedule. The Alaskans took buses to the sites through the heavy east coast traffic as police cars cleared the way. "Thank God we had a police escort," Travis said.

The Last Frontier group only started to get the word out this spring via the media and word of mouth. "I saw something about it on television and I asked my daughter to check it out," said Norat. "At first I didn't believe it."

Ryan heard about it from another vet in Metlakatla. "I said, 'Washington, D.C.? That's too far! Gee whiz, I'm not that young anymore.' But it was the best trip I ever had, even though it was long."

Ellen Jean White, a wartime aircraft mechanic with the WACs, among other assignments, was dubious when she received a letter about the trip that said it would cost the vets nothing. "I thought, this has to be a scam," she said. When it checked out, she signed up as one of two women veterans of the war on the flight.

Hunt mentioned Arlington National Cemetery as a highlight. "You don't realize what freedom costs until you see the graves," he said.

Ryan was struck by the towering Air Force memorial. Several said they were particularly moved by the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

For Norat, the memorable moment came when he got off a bus and was met by a dozen or more family members, including grandchildren he had never seen. "My whole family was there," he said. "The time was too short. It was so hard to say good-bye."

Another high point came on the return flight when an attendant went to the front of the cabin and hollered, "Mail Call!" Each veteran's name was shouted out military style -- i.e. "Hershberger! Al!" -- and envelopes were brought to each containing letters and pictures from friends, family and school children. "It was a complete surprise for a lot of us," Hershberger said.

"Thank you for fighting for our country in World War II," a student from Our Lady of the Valley Catholic School in Wasilla wrote in a letter to White. "You were very brave for winning the war."

"It was the frosting on the cake," White said.

But nothing prepared the vets for the reception they got when the flight touched down at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. In a remarkable diversion from usual procedures, a crowd of family members, military and other well-wishers was allowed past security and lined the corridor to meet the vets with hugs, cheers, flowers, a color guard and bagpipes.

"We had two meetings about what we wanted to do with the airport and Transportation Security Administration before we left," Travis said. "I never heard 'No' once. It was incredible."

"We never expected such a reception," said Brush. "I must have shaken hands with 5,000 people."

(Archibald said the airport estimated the crowd at several hundred, in addition to several hundred other passengers and workers.)

As the parade passed from the secured area to the main airport lobby they were welcomed home by an even larger throng including a band, generals and Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan. The dignitaries made very short speeches, Brush said. "They knew we were a bunch of tired people wanting to go home."

Ryan and Arnold Booth, the other Metlakatla veteran on the trip, flew back to their community on the southeast tip of the state via Seattle and Ketchikan and so missed the reception in Anchorage. But the residents of the Tsimshian Indian town of about 1,400 nonetheless gave them a grand welcome home party Ryan said.

"We had food, dancing. The school kids sang the national anthem. They had me give a little talk about what we did." Local veterans who had been unable to make the trip were also honored at that time, he added. "Everything went pretty good."

The Alaska Wing hopes to sponsor two trips next year. "We'd love to do a flight for the Territorial Guard," Travis said, referring to the mostly-Native civil defense force mobilized to defend Alaska during the war. "It's a challenge to get word out to those guys."

Priority for the flights is given on the basis of age and whether the vet has a terminal illness, which "moves you to the head of the line," Travis said. The plan is to fly as many World War II veterans as possible, then start taking veterans of the Korean War, then Vietnam.

It may take a while. "We still have probably 50 World War II veterans we have applications for," Travis said. "And I imagine we'll get a lot more."


Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.


Al Woodward 
Navy
Hometown: Winnemucca, Nev.
Age: 91

Flying Hellcats and Dauntless dive bombers, Woodward said he went through the war "without a scratch." But he did have some close calls. One plane "plopped in on an alfalfa field" when the engine failed on take-off. Another "missed the hook" on an aircraft carrier and went into the water.

"I like flying and tried to stay in after the war," he said. But the Navy had enough pilots. He got a job as an air traffic controller in Fairbanks in 1949 and transferred to Anchorage a year later. He had the first day shift at the tower of the brand new Anchorage International Airport when it opened.

In 1958 he bought a lot for his float plane on Campbell Lake, where he now lives.


Mike Hunt 
Army Air Corps/Air Force
Hometown: Polk City, Iowa
Age: 91

A farm boy who well in love with flying while watching planes go over the cornfield he was plowing with horses, Hunt soloed in a Taylorcraft at age 16 and joined the military in 1942. Because of his prior flight experience, he was assigned to ferrying planes large and small to various locations. That included taking fighters bound for Russia from the lower 48 to Ladd Field in Fairbanks. He also flew the famed "Memphis Belle" B-17 across the country on a bond drive.

Hunt homesteaded "moose pasture" along Turpin Street in 1947 and started a non-scheduled airline. He has donated two World War II era planes to the Alaska Wing of the Commemorative Air Force.'


Jacob 'Jake' Knapp 
Army
Hometown: Anchorage
Age: 87

Knapp heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor while cross country skiing with friends in Spenard. He entered the service, went through basic training and served his entire tour of duty in Alaska, being discharged in his home town. "In those days they gave you 5 cents a mile for travel when you got out," he said. "They gave me 15 cents."

Much of his time in uniform was spent at Shemya, working on the dock as the stormy island became a staging area for the projected invasion of Japan. "We wore raincoats practically every day. The weather took out the docks and we built them back."

After the war he became an aircraft mechanic and inspector with the FAA, retiring in 1987.


 Elvin 'Slim' Brush 
Army Air Corps/Air Force
Hometown: Modesto, Calif.
Age: 94

Brush remembers seeing mail planes and barnstormers in the 1920s. He skipped school to sweep hangars and soloed in an open cockpit biplane as a teenager. "My first landing was perfect," he said.

Since then he has flown hundreds of planes, including bombing missions over Europe. He remained in the force after the war flying as much as he could -- "I hated desk work" -- until the beginning of the Vietnam war when he retired with the rank of Lt. Colonel. He returned to California, managing his family's ranch and dairy business until a flood struck. At that point he followed a childhood dream and moved to Alaska in 1970.

In the 49th state he drove trucks and heavy equipment on the treacherous Glenn Highway and on the North Slope.


Ellen Jean White 
WAC/Air Force
Hometown: Sioux City, Iowa
Age: 92

In 1938 the teenage White won an airplane trip to Washington, D.C., where she met First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She soloed in a Piper Cub as part of the Civilian Pilot Training program at her college. When the war broke out she tried to enlist with the WASPS but was found to be 1/4 inch too short. Undeterred she went into the WACS, did aircraft mechanics and worked on the flight line.

She remained in the service and was assigned to Elmendorf Air Force Base from 1954-58, returning from 1964-68. Attaining the rank of Lt. Colonel, she re-entered civilian life in 1970 and was a counselor in the Officer Counselling Program at Elmendorf, helping airmen pursue college degrees. She then worked at Providence Extended Care, where she still volunteers.


Manuel Norat 
Army
Hometown: Aibonito, Puerto Rico
Age: 88

Norat is one of seven brothers who signed up after Pearl Harbor. "Everyone was, 'Let's go and get 'em!'" He was wounded in action in Korea.

Returning to civilian life, he came to Alaska as a barber a week after the 1964 Good Friday earthquake. He said he was stunned by the friendly reception he received from everyone he met. "I said, 'This is heaven.'"

He started Anchorage's first salon specializing in fashion cuts for men, Continental Men's Hairstyling. Anchorage businessmen wanting to look their best flocked to the shop on Northern Lights Blvd. So did politicians; he has a citation from the Alaska Legislature saluting his tonsorial art. Customers included Sen. Mike Gravel and Gov. Jay Hammond, who told him, "Don't do anything too fancy. Remember I'm a bush man."


The Last Frontier Honor Flight can be contacted by calling toll-free, 877-560-8542, emailing terry.archibald@tlfhonorflight.org, or going online to tlfhonorflight.org.

 

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