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By Dan Rudy 

Legionnaires look back on lengthy service


Dan Rudy/ Wrangell Sentinel

American Legionnaires Harry Churchill, Gilbert Gunderson, Charlie Ercolin, Cappy Bakke, Einar Haaseth, Chuck Petticrew and Willy Eyon gather at the Stikine Inn for coffee and certificates on Jan. 2.

Ringing in the new year, Wrangell's American Legion Post 6 decided to take an opportunity to thank several of its longest-serving members over coffee at the Stikine Inn on Saturday.

Certificates were presented to four veterans who have been with the organization for more than half a century: Gilbert Gunderson, Harry Churchill, Willy Eyon and Cappy Bakke. Post commander Chuck Petticrew Sr. explained the award ceremony was a first for him since taking the position last March.

"We admire you boys tremendously," Petticrew told his friends and colleagues. Over cookies, scones and coffee, the men had a chance to talk a bit about their service and what being in the Legion meant for them.

The informal award-giving was both a time to say thanks and visit for a bit after the holidays. Having organized the gathering with Petticrew, Einar Haaseth said the certificate each veteran was given was "a letter of appreciation for their years of service to the American Legion and to the positions they've held." At different points they had all served in different capacities as post officers and had represented Wrangell at conventions and various events over the years.

Going on 65 years, Gunderson has been with the Legion the longest of those with Post 6. He joined the Marines in 1948, after finding himself jobless in Seattle with only 90 cents in his pocket. Recounting those days, he explained it was difficult to find a job, and was even more difficult to get into the armed services in that postwar period.

Applicants would have to pass an IQ test with a score of 120 or more. The recruiter convinced Gunderson to try, and he passed with 123.

"I still think the guy gave me a few extra points," he joked.

Joining up, Gunderson would eventually serve in a combat infantry unit during the Korean War. During his time, he was laid up in a ward at Madigan Army Medical Center when he was first approached about Legion membership.

Still short on cash, Gunderson recalled he had to borrow six dollars to pay the initial membership fee, but has been a member of the organization ever since.

Eyon has been in the Legion nearly as long, joining after his time in the Army. He served on special duty with an Air Force aeromedical evacuation unit, transporting injured troops from Korea to Madigan. After serving two years active duty, he spent another six inactive.

Because of the benefits Eyon received through the GI Bill, he was able to go to school and learn to shipbuild after he got out of the Army in 1953. He would later use those skills while constructing the first three ferries of Alaska's marine highway system.

Bakke spent his service in the Army from 1950 to 1953, joining when he was 20 years old. He had initially tried to join the Air Force, but was told it was too full. He trained in California for two years, working with amphibious tanks before being shipped overseas. Though the Korean War was being fought at the time, Cold War tensions were raised elsewhere and Bakke was sent to West Germany on a transport steamer.

"When we left the dock the band played 'I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now,'" he chuckled. Though Bakke was stationed a mere 10 minutes by jet from a Russian base, he enjoyed his time in Europe.

"Oh, it was a picnic," Bakke said. After the service, he married in 1954 and settled down. Following the lead of his uncle, Andy Bakke, he joined the Legion in 1959 and has remained active in it since.

"The Legion gives you a good feeling, like you're brothers," he explained. "It almost feels like I'm overseas with these guys. That's how I feel about it."

"I appreciate being with the Legion. I've made a lot of good friends," Churchill said in agreement.

He had joined the Air Force in 1954, serving on active duty through 1958 and in the National Guard afterward until 1991. As an aircraft mechanic he was deployed all over the world, supporting a number of America's conflicts.

"Cuba, Korea, the Persian Gulf – I've been all over," he recalled. While Churchill enjoyed his time in the service, the experience was also a bittersweet one. "I met a lot of nice people, but I lost a lot, too."

Bakke explained one of the benefits of associating with the Legion has been being able to talk with other veterans about their experiences. Haaseth pointed out that the camaraderie they share in life continues even after, with Legionnaires being there for support and comfort at funeral services and memorials as well. But for the present while they are all still up and about, he felt it was important to get together for some coffee and fellowship while the opportunity was there.


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