Thanks to Nonprofit, Two Local Veterans Fly High in a 1942  P-17

2013-05-05T00:15:00Z Seasoned vets get a taste of heavenBy Kenneth Klein/Contributing Writer Santa Maria Times

When two seasoned veterans showed up at the Santa Maria Airport for free rides in a single-engine warplane, they did not seem to have a health care in the world, but they sure had some pretty big smiles and a lot of military pride.

The senior veterans wasted no time, boarded a waiting open-cockpit 1942 P-17 and got a little closer to heaven above Santa Maria Valley, thanks to a few wishes granted by the nonprofit Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation, which is based in Nevada. The group, with three planes, started up about three years ago, and has provided more than 230 flights to veterans throughout the nation, said Paul Bodenhamer, AADF board member.

The day for veterans Carl Valler, 93, and Burrel McDonald, 80, began Monday when they were transported from Santa Maria Terrace, an assisted living center, on East Main Street to a section of the airfield behind the Radisson Hotel. Plenty of war stories were shared.  “It was a pleasant surprise,” said McDonald. “I enjoyed the peace. Let’s just say if there was anybody up there from a higher power, we talked.”

Both men may have joined the military for different reasons and had different experiences, but the honor of military service remains deeply embedded in their hearts.  McDonald joined the service at 18 and served between 1950-55 on a transport ship in the U.S. Navy.  Valler joined up when he was 15 and provided 33 years of service to the U.S. Navy, Army and Air Force.

McDonald said flying has brought people a long way since he was a young man growing up in Visalia, pointing out that the modern days of taking a quick trip to New York or using aircraft to get to work may not be all that great.

“People overlook the time they have here,” said McDonald, adding ships like the one he served on — the USS General William Mitchell — are more up his alley. “We don’t stay here forever.”

But one thing is for sure: The military is not for babies.  The service made him grow up quick, McDonald said.  For Valler, memories of joining up and the war remain clear as day. Valler said he ran away from school in Michigan after he was struck by a teacher, lied about his age and joined up. But, the real reason?  “My mom said I had to join up, so I did,” Valler said.

In the military, Valler was later captured by the Japanese and became a POW, but a Filipino solider helped him escape.  “They (the Japanese) said they were going to have fun with me,” Valler said. “I thought to myself, no they are not.”

Both men also have different opinions on the idea of a draft, but agree that some form of military service should be required for all Americans.  Valler is all for mandatory service to “protect our country and because men and woman need to learn how to fight” in this troubled world we live in.  McDonald stressed that “some people would like to forget the war,” but believes there should be some form of community/military emphasis in it.

For Bodenhamer and the others like pilot Darryl Fisher, granting dreams to those veterans who wish to fly, there is more than enough to do as time runs out for many veterans.  “We are really focusing on World War II veterans because they are leaving us at a rapid pace,” Bodenhamer said. “We just want to give back to those who have given.”

May 05, 2013 •  By Kenneth Klein, Santa Maria Times