An estimated 1,500 World War II veterans live in Alaska. The generation that fought the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese Army are now in their 80s and 90s, battling the devastations of old age. A group dedicated to honoring these Alaskans just completed its first mission. The Last Frontier Honor Flight flew two dozen veterans to Washington, D.C. last week to visit the World War II Memorial.
Most of the 25 vets arrived at the memorial wearing blue and yellow windbreakers, with “Alaska” emblazoned on the back. But not Mike Hunt. The 91-year-old aviator stood out in his original Air Corps uniform and leather bomber jacket
“This jacket was issued to me in Long Beach, California in 1942,” Hunt said. “And the reason I still got it is I hung it in my chicken house after the war and my son retrieved it and wiped the mold off it and put bear grease on it and here it is. It still fits!”
During the war, Hunt flew aircraft to Russian pilots at Ladd Field in Fairbanks, hauled supplies over “The Hump” in the Himalayas, and delivered troops to occupy Japan. Then he homesteaded in East Anchorage.
Like most of the others on the trip, he toured the memorial in a borrowed wheelchair. As they rolled toward the central fountain for a group photo, a passing jogger stopped to shake hands and thank them for their service.
When Hunt thinks back on the war, he thinks of how the whole country pulled together to win it, and of those who never made it home.
“All these heroes sacrificed so that we’re all free,” he says. “I feel fortunate that I’m still here, a survivor. Could have been the other way around.”
Most of the Alaska honorees came with a family member — In Hunt’s case, his son, Howard. Together they looked at one of the memorial’s more subtle features: a series of panels running around the perimeter that depict scenes of the war and of the home front
“What’s that they’re listening to?” Howard asks his dad in front of a panel showing a family gathered around a radio.
“The war report, I guess,” Hunt says.
“It’s probably the bombing of Pearl Harbor. See, this is the beginning of the War and it goes down each relief has a different image: enlistment to training to service, to shipping out, and then fighting the war and coming home. It goes from the beginning to the end,” Howard explains.
Among the Alaska vets were two elders from Metlakatla, and two women.
“It’s a real thrill to come here with this group. It’s a real honor,” says Ellen Jean White, of Anchorage. She spent more than two decades in the Air Force. She joined the war effort in 1944, hoping to serve her country as a pilot.
“I tried to get in WASPS (Women Air Force Services Pilots), but they wouldn’t let me in because I was a quarter inch too short,” White recalls. “And I had a pilot’s license and was fully qualified otherwise. So I joined the Air Force. And I wanted to do something with aviation and they made me an admin clerk and finally I got into aircraft maintenance, … and they wouldn’t let us do that very long because they said that wasn’t lady-like. So then I went into supply, and I was in supply and logistics from then on.”
After the war she was twice stationed at Elmendorf, and she retired in Anchorage in the 1970s. Still agile at 92, she popped in and out of her wheelchair to pose for pictures with her granddaughter.
Last Frontier Honor Flight, along with its Fairbanks sister organization, raised money to fly the veterans and their guardians to Washington. Founder and president Ron Travis of Big Lake is himself a Vietnam War veteran.
“Well the real value is just what you see here: families interacting,” Travis says. “They’re seeing this for the first time, the families, or hearing stories for the first time. I think it’s kind of a closure somewhat to some of the veterans when they look around, and it’s kind of an ending thing for them. It’s kind of shutting the door because it never really got shut. To me, that’s really what it’s about.”
Travis says he hopes this is the first tour of many.