Sixteen million men and women served in World War II. Of those, 2 million remain alive. As that generation ages, organizations around the country work to make sure they get one last hurrah: an all-expense paid trip from their homes to Washington, D.C., to see war memorials and other sites.
“We feel a sense of urgency. These guys are going away 600 a day,” said Ron Travis, orga-
nizer with his wife Lynda of The Last Frontier Honor Flight, the Alaska group that helps older veterans visit D.C.
The Travises recently returned with a group of 23 veterans and traveling companions — called guardians — who went on the fourth flight of the Big Lake-based organization, including several veterans and friends from the lower Kenai Peninsula.
Some were Korean War veterans, like former
Homer resident LeRoy Gannaway, now living in Wasilla, but most were World War II veterans, including Dottie Holten, 92, of Homer, and Johnny Hansen of Stariski.
Honor Flight veterans get free airfare donated by Alaska Airlines, while guardians pay $1,000 for airfare, hotels and other expenses, said Ron Travis. The American Legion Post 16 paid for Holten’s guardian, Darlene Sheldon. Every vet- eran gets a wheelchair and those who need oxygen also get equipment, all donated by Geneva Wood Pharmacy of Anchorage. More priceless was recognition at every stop of the way. The veterans and their guardians all wore matching blue-and-gold jackets and stood out in the crowds.
A Scottish pipe and drum corps and choirs performed a musical send-off for the veterans in Anchorage. Lt. Gov. Byron Mallot greeted them. The Colony High School Junior ROTC color guard saluted them. At layovers in Portland, Ore., and at the Washington, D.C., airport, more honor guards met them. Congressman Don Young, R-Alaska, and Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, visited with the veterans at the World War II Memorial. When people at airports saw the veterans being honored, they clapped and cheered for them. At memorials when school children saw the veterans, they lined up to greet them.
“Our intention was to give them a welcome home they never got,” Travis said.
“I don’t think for my entire life I have shaken hands that much,” Holten said.
Holten was one of two women veterans on the honor flight. Eleanor Smith, a U.S. Air Force veteran, also at- tended. One highlight for Holten was visiting the Women in Military Service Memorial for America. The memorial had known she was coming and put up a plaque honoring her service.
Holten served in the U.S. Coast Guard in Seattle from April 1943 to October 1945. Born and raised in California, she married her husband, James Holten, at age 18. When he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and got his orders overseas, Holten joined the Coast Guard.
“I could see a long, lonesome war ahead of me,” she said.
Holten went through boot camp at probably one of the poshest barracks ever: the Biltmore Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., a luxury hotel remodeled for military service. Holten remembered the commissioning ceremony for the hotel bar- racks, when the recruits stood in wool dress uniforms in the June sun. One by one recruits began to faint, but Holten
noticed a drill instructor who didn’t like her had his eye on her.
“I’ll be darned if I was going to faint,” she said.
Traveling by train to Seattle, the Coast Guard women shared a train with two cars full of British sail- ors. The sailors had to walk through the women’s car to get to the dining car.
“I got a whole bunch of British sailors’ autographs,” Holten said.
In Seattle she stayed at the Assembly Hotel and worked in the district personnel office. One of her jobs was to mark off daily staff reports by duty station on a big chalkboard she had to stand on a ladder to reach the top rows. Women didn’t serve in combat then.
“They didn’t think we were capable of combat,” Holten said. “Or maybe they figured you can turn a woman on but you can’t turn her off. It takes a bit to make a woman go battle berserk, and then she doesn’t stop.”
As a point of embarkation for the Pacific Ocean, a lot of soldiers, sailors, Marines and pilots passed through Seattle. Holten went to a Lutheran Church service club for entertain- ment and to give the soldiers company. The club had a piano and singalongs every night.
“It was companionship and friendship, and a lot of people a long way from home,” she said. “I was there long enough I met some of them when they came back, and that was bad, these cheerful American boys going out and com- ing back absolutely drained.”
James Holten corresponded with her by V-mail, letters photographed in the war zone on microfiche and then sent as film back home. The negatives were then printed and de- livered. Her husband wrote her twice a week, but one time she didn’t get any mail for two weeks. His ship had lost its radio during a storm, and when it got back to port, was just about to be listed as lost at sea. The letters then started to come again.
“That was much, much better for my morale,” Holten said.
Her husband had one close call when a Japanese plane flew down on his ship.
“He (the pilot) came down low enough they could see his face, and then he wagged the wings and flew away.
Apparently they were too little for him to worry about,” she said.
After the war, the Holtens lived in Paso Robles, Calif., and then Cave Junction, Ore. They were married for 54 years before he died in 1995. She moved to Homer in 2000 with son, Donald Holten, and his wife. Donald died of weld- er’s cancer. Dottie Holten lives independently in a trailer off East End Road.
Holten said she feels the women military veterans of her generation paved the way for modern women service members.
“Our being in service has made it easier for girls to go in now,” Holten said. “It made a difference to the girls who wanted to go in after us. Now they’re letting us do things like sea duty, air-sea rescue.”
Travis and his wife founded The Last Frontier Honor Flight after hearing of a similar effort from a veteran at his mother’s assisted living home in Spokane, Wash. He and Lynda Travis decided to help out with an Alaska honor flight group, and when they found out there wasn’t one, began The Last Frontier Honor Flight.
Starting in January 2013, they made their first flight in October 2013 and have done three more since then. Eventually the honor flight plans to include Vietnam War veterans like Travis, but for now focuses on World War II and Korean War veterans, especially World War II vets.
“If you know a World War II guy, let us know,” Travis said. “If the doctor says they can fly, we’ll take them.”
The oldest veteran who has gone was 102. On one flight, the average age was 90.
“It’s been a real pleasure working with those guys. It’s an honor hanging out with them,” Travis said.
The Last Frontier Honor Flight also welcomes cash do- nations and volunteers to be guardians or airport greeters. For more information and to help, visit www.lastfrontier- honorflight.com or call 866-790-7944.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.arm- email@example.com.