Retired farmer Eugene Howard of Granger sailed all over the Pacific Ocean on the USS Intrepid during WWII, but by age 91.5 he had still never been on an airplane, never been away from the farm overnight, and never stayed in a hotel. His daughter Denise recently asked him “Now that you don’t have to tend animals anymore, is there anywhere you’ve always wanted to visit, or visit again?” After awhile he answered “Well it would be nice to see Honolulu again”. Denise sprang into action, and through a team effort with his other daughter Sherlyn and Denise’s husband Michael Belef it all happened! Great neighbors Carl and Terry Sommers, Harold and Marvis Trump, and Ralph Wittenberg also helped.
On Saturday, September 12, Sherlyn drove Eugene to St. Louis. The next day, she helped him board a Southwest Airlines flight to San Jose with a layover in Las Vegas. Southwest was fantastic and anticipated every need, allowing Sherlyn to escort Eugene all the way to the gate, pre-boarding him for extra time, and ensuring that someone met him at the gate in Las Vegas to escort him to his connecting flight. In San Jose, Denise and Michael met Eugene at the gate. He spent the night at their house, where he saw Denise’s art studio for the first time.
On Monday, September 14, they toured the USS Hornet, a WWII-era Essex-class aircraft carrier which is now a floating museum in Alameda, CA. The Hornet is a sister ship of the USS Intrepid, on which Eugene served in the US Navy from 1944-46. Back then he was a fireman way down in the boiler room, so the docents enabled them to visit it. They climbed many ladders and steps to visit just about every deck of the Hornet and learn some of its stories.
Eugene recalled a kamikaze hit on the Intrepid November 25, 1944 which crashed through the flight deck onto the hangar deck, killing 70 sailors instantly; he was off-duty at the time and the impact was only one deck above his location. He said it’s still the loudest sound he ever heard. The men below deck were plunged into total darkness and silence for a long time. When the ship started listing, they became afraid that it was sinking so they all ignored orders and made their way topside. It turned out that the ship wasn’t sinking, instead the captain had ordered it into a tight turn to tilt the deck so the water from the firehoses would run off!
After the Hornet, they crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the few things that hasn’t changed since Eugene last saw it 69 years ago. At the north end of the bridge they visited the Lone Sailor monument, which was dedicated in 2002 to the thousands of men and women of the Navy, Marines, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine who have sailed through the Golden Gate, many of whom never returned.
On Tuesday, September 15, Eugene, Denise and Michael flew to Honolulu, an almost five hour flight. After checking into their hotel they walked the short distance to Waikiki Beach and soon met another sailor from Eugene’s era who had served on a hospital ship. That evening they attended the Big Kahuna Luau atop a mountain above Honolulu. Part of the show was a little history of the evolution of hula, which included a dance number about the soldiers and sailors of WWII. The luau hosts dedicated it to Eugene in honor of his being the only WWII veteran in attendance!
The next day, they visited Pearl Harbor, including the USS Arizona memorial, the USS Bowfin submarine and the USS Missouri battleship. The Arizona is a somber site, where fuel oil still slowly leaks from its tanks and colors the water, 74 years after the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. The USS Bowfin was launched exactly one year later and ultimately sank 40 Japanese ships. Eugene was able to hurdle all the hatches and climb all the ladders in his first submarine! The USS Missouri is special as the place where the Japanese surrendered, and it was very special to then-president and fellow Missourian, Harry Truman. During the tour, a Navy ceremony happened to be taking place which concluded with a large group of sailors singing both the Navy Hymn and “Anchors Aweigh”, which made Eugene smile.
On every vessel, tour guides reminded visitors “These ships were designed for 19-year-old men. The climbs can be strenuous and there are many trip hazards. They will knock your ankles, knees, head and elbows….” At 91.5 years, Eugene never had a problem. Everyone was impressed at his ability to still climb up and down all the steep ladders and steps, and many were compelled to ask his age. He was happy to tell them! Many people stopped to thank him for his service in WWII, something he had never experienced before.
Back in Honolulu, they all bought aloha shirts!
On Thursday, September 17, they took a circle island tour of Oahu, which included some of the places Eugene remembered from time spent on liberty, such as the Dole pineapple plantation. That night they sat by Waikiki Beach as the sun set over the swimmers and surfers, and stayed long after dark, talking just like back home on the farm. It was Denise’s birthday, and she said “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
The next day they returned to San Jose. They had spent only 3.5 days in Honolulu, but since it was Eugene’s first trip they didn’t want to wear him out! After another overnight stay with Denise and Michael, Eugene flew back to St. Louis, and again Southwest Airlines offered excellent care. After an extra night at Sherlyn’s house, she drove him back to the farm on Monday, September 21.
Eugene had a wonderful adventure, met many nice people, and brought home some souvenirs. He said the trip was “One of the nicest things anyone’s ever done for me”. Denise said in response “It was our privilege to make it happen for him. It goes to show, you’re never too old to try something new.”