WWII vet reminisces, shares legacy

KENAI — The two boys climbed out of their cockpits, onto a yellow wing and back onto the tarmac where the World War II era plane sat under a blue sky.


When the brothers grow up, if they chose a life in the sky, 8-year-old Devin Martin would like to fly barrel rolls and backflips; 9-year-old Tyler Treider would just like to fly a plane like the antique AT-6 Harvard warbird they had just climbed down from.

“When I was in the back you could see a lot of the controls,” Tyler said.

Devin said there were gauges and switches and dials.

“The new ones have a couple dials and then a screen,” said Sydney Treider, their 13-year-old brother, standing by the plane’s tail.

The three brothers, of Nikiski, agreed: the older models, the ones from World War II, are much cooler.

“I’ve seen a guy from World War II,” Devin said. “That guy over there you were talking to.”

He pointed just across the edge of the Kenai Municipal Airport tarmac to a building with two garage-style sliding doors. They were open, and about 30 people milled about in the building. Another roughly 80 ate hamburgers and hotdogs, sat at tables listening to the music, or browsed the six airplanes parked on display at the 13th Annual Kenai Peninsula Air Fair.

“Mike,” said Tyler, remembering the man’s name.

“He even shook you hand, didn’t he?” said their grandmother, Jan McDonald, of Nikiski.

“Yeah,” Devin said.

“He even looked pretty good in his uniform,” Jan said.

“Yes,” Devin said. “I’m surprised that uniform even fits him.”

Inside the hangar, sitting at a table, signing autographs was Corporal Mike Hunt, a tall, thin World War II veteran and member of the Alaska Wing of Commemorative Air Force.

In 2007, Hunt donated the very plane the three brothers stood by to the CAF.

“You wanted an airplane someplace — I’d get it to ya’,” Mike said, reminiscing about his young years in the air. “We ferried our birds wherever they were needed.”

He paused and looked up from the table. Hunt is now 91.

“I see you’re a World War II vet. My dad was too,” said a woman with a child.

“You want a poster with my name on it?” he asked.

Mike grabbed a black marker and a large “Alaska Aviation Centennial Celebration” poster. The woman and her child waited in front of the table.

During World War II, he flew for the Air Transport Command in the Army Air Force. He was never in combat, but he nearly died more than once.

A farm boy, he grew up in Iowa, destined for a life in the field, or so his parents thought. He was 16 when they discovered where he was actually going when he left the house. It wasn’t church; it wasn’t school — and he didn’t have agriculture aspirations.

He was going to the airport, logging hours in the air.

But, just a teenager, he wasn’t cleared without his parent’s permission to fly solo. And when he got it, they cut him off — “I was supposed to plant corn, not fly airplanes” — and money was tight, he said.

But when he joined the Army Air Force in 1942, age 19, he made it work. Besides, he said, he had already pocketed 80 hours of flight time in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Pilot Training Program, preparation for the war.

He said he was hazed pretty badly by the senior students: a freshman who could actually fly — that was unfortunate, he said. He said his trick was treating his plane like he would a woman: “graceful, careful and slowly.”

Mike finished his signature and handed the woman her poster.

“Thank you for serving out country, Captain Mike,” the woman said.

“Thank you for thanking me,” he said.

Setting down the marker, he sat back and resumed telling his war-time stories.

He almost jumped from a P-39 once when he was delivering it to Fairbanks from the Lower 48.

Then the engine quit. They had told him to abandon ship if it were to ever happen, but when he looked down, the white-capped mountains of the Northwest looked back up at him. He couldn’t do it.

So he changed his fuel source, something any prudent pilot would do, he said, and flew the rest of the way.

“We had to learn in a hurry,” he said.

Soon after enlisting, he was made a plane commander of the B-17, his favorite plane. He was 20.

He’s had memorable experiences in that plane, too. Once, en route to Cheyenne, Wyo., from Seattle, he and his copilot, Duncan Miller, spotted a cold-front thunder storm above Rock Springs, Wyo.

“I said to my pilot, ‘I wonder what’ll happen if we fly into that thunder storm,” he said.

They entered at 12,000 feet, lightning and hail snapping down. And they lost control and tumbled.

“I didn’t know if I was right-side up or upside down,” he said.

After about 5 minutes, the storm tossed them out at 16,000 feet, his instruments very confused.

“It’s almost like being in a washer machine,” he said. “That was a pretty memorable experience.”

He has also flown the Memphis Bell, the first B-17 to complete 25 missions over Germany, and he has recovered from a “dead man spiral” when he and Duncan fell asleep three days and three nights en route to northern Alaska to maintain the Dew Line, radar defenses from the Russians.

But now he only flies recreationally, though the memories are still strong, he said. If he ever feels sleepy, he just thinks of that “dead man spiral,” he said.

He attributes his living today to Duncan.

Duncan was a religious man and a good person, he said. Whenever they came close, the Lord intervened for Duncan, he said. Salvation by proximity.

“Just a good guy,” Hunt said.

Before people packed the tarmac for the air fair, Hunt had flown in on his Vultee BT-13 Valiant, another classic World War II era plane.

He will likely donate that plane, too, to the CAF because he knows he cannot take it with him where he is going, he said. So it feels good.

“I feel like I’m doing the right thing for keeping the legacy alive. I feel like I can go to my grave and know I left my footprint,” he said.

He looked out of the hangar at the yellow AT-6 Harvard he donated years ago. A man on the wing was hoisting a boy into the cockpit.

Inside a man with a camera hovered for an autograph. Hunt picked up the marker.

“I completed 91 orbits around the sun,” he said. “I completed my flight plan for 92, so that’ll make me 92 in January.”


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