FAIRBANKS — This fall, a pair of World War II veterans from Fairbanks was on the inaugural Alaska trip in the Honor Flight Network, which brings veterans to their war memorial in Washington, D.C.
The Honor Flight Network was founded in 2005 after the completion of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., when a physician assistant in Ohio realized many veterans did not have the means to see their own memorial. Since its founding, the program has transported more than 81,000 WWII veterans to Washington at no cost to the veterans.
There had been no Honor Flight from Alaska because the program was based on donated tickets from Southwest Airlines, which does not fly to Alaska. That changed this fall when Alaska Airlines donated flights for Alaska vets.
The first flight took two Anchorage-area veterans and two residents of the Fairbanks Pioneers’ Home: Bill Green, an Air Force veteran, and Robert Ingram, a Navy veteran. During a busy September trip, the four veterans saw not only the World War II Memorial but also the Capitol, Mount Vernon and the other memorials on the Capital Mall.
Green’s room at the Fairbanks Pioneers’ Home is now decorated with souvenirs from his trip. There’s a “Greatest Generation” baseball cap with a pin from Alaska Airlines — the others didn’t get that because they were not Air Force, he said. Green also has letters from elementary school students thanking him for his service, a schedule from a busy sightseeing day, a book of postcards and, most importantly, a handwritten letter from his son’s commanding general in Afghanistan. Green said he does not know how his son’s commander found out about his service and his trip, but said he was flattered by the personal note.
Green also was astonished by the generosity of the program. Before he left, his son gave him $200 in cash in case he need to buy something on the trip. Green said he didn’t touch the money and gave it back, with $10 interest no less, after the trip.
During WWII, Green was the skipper on a PT boat that responded to airplane crashes along the Aleutian Islands. Going to the memorial was important to honor his crew, he said.
Down the hall from Green at the Pioneers’ Home is the room of Ingram, a Navy veteran who also worked as a civilian in Dutch Harbor when the Japanese bombed it during the war. Unlike Green, who found out there was one space available five days before the Honor Flight left, Ingram had been on an Honor Flight waiting list for years. He said he followed the construction of the World War II Memorial since two Fairbanks residents made donations to the memorial in his name.
“With that, they started sending me a lot of pictures and the progress. I had a little idea (of what the memorial would look like) but to see it finished, how grand it really is,” he said. “I had lost all hope I would get to see it.”
Julie Engfer, the executive director of Festival Fairbanks, got the idea for an Alaska Honor Flight when she saw a film about it on Veterans Day last year. Along with many others, she helped organize and raise money to make it happen. They are hoping to organize more flights with the next one likely to take place in April after the Cherry Blossom Festival wraps up in Washington. According to Honor Flight’s 2011 statistics, about 900 American WWII veterans die every day.
“We have an urgency there to complete this mission and get as many people that are still remaining from World War II,” Engfer said.
Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545.