Thousands of miles from home, Diamond Point pilots John Johnson and Dave Richardson have made their trek to Hawaii for the 75th commemoration of the end of World War II in the Pacific.
The two pilots flew from the Sequim area to San Diego in mid-July to quarantine in a hotel for 14 days because of COVID-19 regulations.
After clearing medical tests, the friends left aboard the USS Essex for eight days with hundreds of sailors to Pearl Harbor for the Aug. 29-Sept. 2 commemoration.
The event includes an aerial parade with historic warbirds such as Johnson’s T6 Texan.
“We’re lucky in that we’re both retired and could take a month-and-a-half off,” Richardson said. “Others are trickling in now and between the 26th.”
Johnson said they were able to arrive in Hawaii so early on Aug. 10, because the Essex was en route to the Hawaiian Islands.
Because of 2019 novel coronavirus concerns, Richardson said many of the restaurants near them are closed.
“A lot of the things you’d go and see are closed, but we’re not here for a vacation,” Johnson said. “We’re here to honor veterans and their loss.”
Richardson said their first night aboard was rough with a lot of wind and big swells.
“Some (historic plane pilots) had thinner canopy covers and the wind was turning them into pirate ships with tattered sales,” he said.
The winds mellowed though and the few civilian pilots aboard were given mostly open access.
“They said, ‘Go pretty much anywhere you want to go; if the door is locked, you can’t go in there,’” Richardson said.
Johnson and Richardson were able to eat with the leadership of the ship several times and because only a few civilians were aboard the experience felt more personal.
“They weren’t overwhelmed,” Johnson said. “Everything is routine. It’s like ‘Groundhog’s Day.’ The meals are at the same time and what food they have is on the same schedule.
“Everything is about meals and it’s the only time where you sit (staggered) and socialize and interact like a human being.”
Johnson said they gave talks and tours about the historic planes to crew members and they were able to see much of the ship’s operations.
“It was a wonderful experience,” Richardson said. “We made new friends for life.”
Some aspects of ship life did take some getting used to, the friends said, including the constant noises of running pumps and air handlers. Richardson said they also got plenty of steps in each day as they had to climb a lot of ladders to access different aspects of the Essex.
At sundown, interior lights go from white to red to preserve night vision, which took a few minutes to adjust, the pair said.
“It was surreal,” Richardson said.
In an age of easy access to information, they were required to turn their cell phones off so they didn’t know their exact location. The few details available to them came in unclassified briefings each morning from ship leaders.
After the warbirds and civilians were dropped off, ship leaders and the pilots arranged to do some fly-by photo opportunities with some of the ship’s company in dress whites on the flight deck for a few hours.
Johnson said so far he’s flown with a local TV reporter to promote the commemoration too. Prior to the events, the friends will continue to configure a camera on the T6 for the best footage.
“These airplanes vibrate a lot, so we’re trying to work on that,” Richardson said.
Once all the pilots arrive, Johnson plans to take all the T6s up to practice formations.
“It’s like dancing,” he said. “We’ll get three up or four or five. It’s not something you just do. You have to practice.”
Find videos and footage from the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in the Pacific at www.75thwwiicommemoration.org.