Local WWII vet takes Honor Flight

World War II veteran Milton Howard stands in his Dillon home in the Big Sky Honor Flight shirt commemorating the free trip he received last week to visit the National World War II Memorial in Washington D.C.

 

During his service in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Milton Howard earned numerous honors, including a Bronze Star, Victory Medal, Good Conduct Medal and European Theatre Ribbon. 

But the Dillon resident’s most moving honor of all for his service to his country may have come last week, when Milton Howard got a free trip from Big Sky Honor Flight from Billings to Washington D.C., along with 150 other World War II veterans, to visit the National World War II Memorial.

“I’m still crying,” said Howard a day after returning to Dillon, where he lives with his partner of 11 years, Mary Staples. 

“Everyone there was crying. It was awesome.”

Howard, who worked for 39 years on the Milwaukee Railroad, got to and from the flight through a ride from Jim Sivils that Joan Grogan helped arrange.

“Milton had stopped into the store and told me he had the opportunity to go on the flight, but stopped back a week later and said he didn’t think he could get to Billings for it,” recalled Grogan, who owns the 3-D store in downtown Dillon.

“The man was at Normandy on D-Day. If I had had to lock my door and take him there myself, I would have gotten him on that Honor Flight. Milton and those other veterans put their lives on the line so I could live the life I choose to.”

Howard’s trip from Billings to Washington D.C. was organized by Big Sky Honor Flight, which is part of the Honor Flight Network, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to paying tribute to World War II veterans by helping them visit their memorial in Washington D.C. With the youngest surviving World War II vets now well into their eighties, Honor Flight approaches its mission with urgency.

Howard was just a teenager when he first tried to enlist in the U.S. military, 10 days after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. 

“My family has fought in every American war since the Mayflower landed,” asserted Howard, who said he had an ancestor on the Pilgrims first voyage to America and who traces his lineage back to Mary Queen of Scots.

Turned down after a military physical due to a medical problem, a determined Howard had surgery to correct the problem and enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 17 the following year, on June 6, 1942.

Exactly two years later, Howard manned a gun at the front of a vessel that dropped off soldiers on D-Day at Normandy’s Omaha Beach, where Allied forces suffered heavy casualties after meeting an unexpectedly stiff German resistance, but still managed to set up a beachhead that helped mark the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.

“I’m no hero,” insists Howard, who received a letter of thanks from the French government for his help in freeing France from occupation by Adolph Hitler’s forces.

“The heroes were the ones lying back on that beach.”

Howard and his fellow vets got a hero’s welcome last week outside the National World War II Memorial, where they were greeted by a long line of fans and well-wishers.

“They all cheered and the girls all needed to get hugged,” laughed Howard, the grandfather of 16, great-grandfather of 28 and great-great-grandfather of 1.

Every vet who came on the trip went home a day later with an Honor Flight jacket, hat and shirt, a Profiles of Sacrifice booklet and a large photo book about the National World War II Memorial that included a photo of Howard with his group of visiting veterans.

During their time in D.C., the veterans attended a banquet in their honor and Howard got to meet Montana’s Congressional delegation.

“I was a little bit dubious when I first heard about this whole thing—it seemed too good to be true,” said Howard, who was born and raised in Montana, and later raised six children and one adopted child on his own after his wife passed. 

“But it was real and it was awesome.”