Two local men, born worlds apart, will share a flight April 21 to Washington, D.C. It’s the least they’ve earned for their service to their country.
Ernie Sells of Troy and Dick Miner of Libby are two World War II veterans chosen for an Honor Flight from Billings to the capital of the United States.
About 90 Montana veterans will fly out from Billings for two days in Washington. The veterans will visit the Lincoln Memorial, several war memorials – including the relatively new World War II Memorial – and will enjoy a banquet.
“I’m just so excited and honored,” Miner said. “I’m sure it will be powerful.”
Big Sky Honor Flight, the Montana branch of the Honor Flight program, rewards World War II and terminally ill veterans from all eras with a trip to see their memorial. The service began in 2005 in Ohio, and since has transported 63,000 World War II veterans to their memorial.
“You gotta be excited,” Sells said. “I’m gonna be in a wheelchair after. Both knees are shot. I’ve got asbestos in the lungs ”
Sells, 85, was reluctant to go at first when he found out he’d been selected.
“He wasn’t sure he was going to feel up to it,” said Sells’ daughter, Carene Cratty. “Now, he’s worried he’s going to put me out by driving him to Billings.”
Sells still speaks with a muddied drawl from his birthplace in Sherwood, Tenn., a tiny speck of a town 15 miles from the Alabama border. He joined the Army in 1946 and was sent to Fort McClellan Alabama to guard German prisoners.
“An officer told me if one escaped, I’d take his place,” Sells said. “I told them the first one to run would be shot.”
After four months at McClellan, he was deployed to Tachikawa Airfield in Tokyo.
It was in Japan he saw the horrors of war first-hand.
“We went down to Hiroshima, where they dropped the bomb,” he said. “It was scary to see that destruction that bomb did. But it saved so many lives. The Japanese could have fought a good battle.”
While in Tokyo, he was ordered to guard a bridge. Japanese civilians would go to it at night and commit suicide. Eventually things settled down and Sells was able to enjoy the country.
His gentle, teasing nature puts people at ease, and his orchards and wild birds have become a passion. Despite Sells’ advanced age, he continues to hunt every year. The Troy Veterans of Foreign Wars post 5514 and the Troy Auxiliary each gave Sells $100 for spending money in Washington.
Miner, 88, was a B-24 pilot in the Army Air Corps (the predecessor to the U.S. Air Force) from 1943 to 1945, but was never shipped overseas.
The Tacoma, Wash. native, a deeply religious Baptist who worked for St. Regis, isn’t upset he wasn’t deployed to a combat zone.
“I was satisfied with how things turned out,” he laughed. “I’m excited to go back to Washington for two reasons, one is to see the World War II Memorial, the second is to see the FDR memorial.”
Miner said it was dark the last time he was in D.C., and his pictures of Roosevelt didn’t turn out well. His son-in-law, David Steward, said Miner is still active, spending much of his time visiting his wife Hilda at the Libby Care Center and as the treasurer of Libby Baptist Church.
Neither Miner nor Sells spoke to family much about their service. Miner is more proud of his time as a missionary in West Africa.
According to his daughter, Lydia Miner, he spent close to 10 years with his wife in countries such as The Gambia, Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire. His love for Hilda still runs deep.
“He spends quite a bit of time staying in touch with his missionary contacts,” Lydia Miner said. “And he has at least one meal a day with (Hilda). He takes her out to church, to visit friends and on long car rides.”
Miner and Sells are approaching 90, but are still in good enough shape to take a trip to Washington, D.C. They are among the lucky ones flying out April 21. The flight will return to Billings late in the evening April 22.
According to 2012 figures, World War II veterans are dying at the rate of 800 a day. The Honor Flight is a way for veterans to travel to Washington, D.C., free as a show of appreciation for serving. To be placed on next year’s flight or to help a loved one be placed on the flight, check out www.bigskyhonorflight.org or call 406-690-4613.
Korean War and Vietnam War veterans may be eligible as well. All donations are applied directly to the Honor Flight expenses and are tax-deductible.