Snohomish WWII vet cherishes visit to D.C. memorials

SNOHOMISH — When the World War II Memorial opened in 2004 in Washington, D.C., veteran Ralph Sterley of Snohomish took notice.

Sterley, now 88, served on a submarine in the Pacific during the war.

“I thought, ‘It would be nice to see that, but I probably won’t make the trip back there to do it,’” he said.

As it turned out, Sterley not only made the trip, he didn’t have to pay a dime.

Last month, Sterley was one of 36 veterans who made the Honor Flight Network’s first-ever trip from Seattle.

Under the program, supported by donations, World War II veterans are flown for free to see the war memorials in the nation’s capital.

It’s a whirlwind journey — a day to get there, a day to see the memorials and a day to get home.

The volunteers who accompanied the veterans on the trip went out of their way to make sure the men were safe and comfortable, Sterley said.

“They were really organized,” he said.

The group was greeted with grand receptions after landing both in D.C. and back in Seattle. Here, fire trucks shot water into the air, bagpipe bands escorted the veterans through Sea-Tac Airport and people dressed in World War II period uniforms and carrying flags marched behind. Sterley’s son, Bob, 66, estimated the greeting party at 500 people.

From 2005 through 2012, the Springfield, Ohio-based Honor Flight Network transported more than 98,500 veterans to Washington, D.C.

The group currently focuses its efforts on World War II veterans because, according to their website, about 800 of those veterans are passing away every day. Eventually the focus will shift to veterans of the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

Until last month, all the group’s flights from Washington state had departed from Spokane.

About a year ago, Sterley was attending one of the monthly meetings of a submarine veterans group when another veteran told him Honor Flight was planning a trip from Seattle.

“I didn’t know about it before that,” he said.

He filled out an application and eventually was selected.

In addition to the memorial to those who died in the Second World War, Sterley’s trip included visits to the Korean War Veterans Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.

As luck would have it, his group was in Washington, D.C., during the government shutdown.

Technically, the monuments were closed, in some cases with signs and sawhorses blocking the streets, Sterley said. The fountains weren’t running.

“They were kind of closed but not closed,” Sterley said.

The veterans and other visitors on foot still were able to get through. At the World War II memorial, veterans were told they had to be in wheelchairs, even if they were fit and spry like Sterley. There weren’t enough volunteer staff members on the trip to push all the veterans, so other visitors stepped up. Sterley was wheeled in by a Marine, he said.

Later, Sterley had to go to the restroom. He was told he’d have to go to a row of portable toilets where there were long lines.

He was escorted to the front by a woman visiting the memorial.

“She was yelling, ‘World War II vet, submarine man, Pacific theater, coming through,’” Sterley recalled.

Sterley was stationed aboard the submarine Sea Owl for a year-and-a-half in 1944 and ‘45. He was 17 when he began training for the deployment, he said.

The sub sunk a Japanese submarine in the harbor at Wake Island, Sterley said. Being the first one to spot the enemy sub, he was later awarded a bottle of whiskey, which he raffled off.

“I got quite a lot of money,” he said.

The sub also sank a Japanese destroyer escort boat and shot up an enemy radio station on Pratas Island in the South China Sea, Sterley said.

The sub navigated past floating mines and felt concussions from depth charges dropped nearby, but was never hit nor were any of its crew members killed while Sterley was aboard, he said.

When he returned from the war he attended the University of Washington on the GI Bill and became an electrical engineer. He worked for the Bonneville Power Administration, built his house in Snohomish in 1957 and raised nine children.

Through the decades Sterley has attended meetings of submarine veterans — for years, it was a World War II-only group until it lost most of its members. Now, the United States Submarine Veterans Inc. has opened its membership to submarine vets of all wars.

Sterley, a widower, still does home repairs.

“If he and I had a foot race,” his son Bob said, “he’d beat me.”

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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