Longtime resident reunited with Army buddy after 71 years

At age 94, longtime resident Elmer Mork was reunited with an old Army buddy after 71 years with no contact.

"He got homesick for (me)," Mork said of his friend Harold Esmailka, age 93. "My little brother."

Esmailka's son-in-law, Dale Erickson, had recently gotten a boat in Seattle and wanted to base it in Wrangell. When Erickson found out that one of the town's residents was Esmailka's often-talked-about Army friend, he contacted his father-in-law.

Esmailka remembered Erickson's phone call, "He said, 'Come on down, we want you to see your old buddy Elmer.'"

He arrived in town from the Yukon River community of Ruby with his wife Florence and grandson Landon Erickson and met with Mork on May 10, enjoying each other's company at the Stikine Inn. "What a tremendous experience," Esmailka said. "I had been looking forward to it for so long. I'm just sorry I didn't do it earlier."

As the U.S. was getting involved in the Korean War, Mork, who was coming from Pelican, and Esmailka, from Ruby, were drafted into the Army in 1951.

"Normally, they'll ship you out, like to Fort Benning (the U.S. Army base now known as Fort Moore near Columbus, Georgia) for basic training," Esmailka said, who added that because an infantry regiment was moving into Fairbanks at that time, it was determined it would be best to have recruits from Alaska help newcomers adapt to their new environment. "So, we never got out of Alaska. I was so anxious to get into service because I wanted to see what the rest of the country was like."

"I think we all did," Mork said, laughing.

Both men trained in Anchorage before they were stationed in the same company in Fairbanks.

When they weren't on duty, they liked to hang out with other soldiers from Alaska, including Bill Hammer from Wrangell, with whom Mork would go fishing as a kid when he visited from Pelican. "He and I kind of grew up together," Mork said.

When they weren't on duty, the three liked to go hunting, fishing, trapping or other activities, becoming close friends. "Being Alaskans, instead of sitting around the barracks on the weekend, we all wanted to go out," Esmailka said. "We were always together."

After they mustered out of the Army on May 8, 1953, Mork and Hammer convinced their friend to spend some time in Wrangell working on Hammer's father's fishing boat The Sultan, traveling to Yakutat, Pelican and all stops in between. "I was just a young guy, I thought I'd try it," Esmailka said. "The three of us spent the whole summer on that boat."

Once, while in Wrangell, Esmailka remembered seeing a beautiful young woman who would eventually become Mork's wife. "I always remember her to this day," he said. "I never met her; I just saw her. And by golly, my old buddy married her. ... When I saw him the other day, I said, 'Man, you must have really turned on the charm.'"

Still, by the end of that summer, he was ready to return to Ruby, 220 air miles west of Fairbanks. "It was just too wet for me," he said of Southeast. "I got to the point where I'd never leave the house in the morning without my rain jacket. So, I was happy to get back to the Interior where the air is dry, totally different."

After their last summer together, the three men fell out of touch. "We were all doing our own things," Esmailka said, who added that he especially regretted that he never got back in touch with Hammer before his passing some time ago. "He was a true fisherman."

Mork moved to Wrangell, married Patricia and had four children. He worked in the lumber and timber industry before becoming a fisherman until his retirement. His wife now lives in long-term care at the Wrangell Medical Center.

Esmailka met and married Florence and had kids, moving from working in construction to owning and running a general store and becoming a pilot. "During that period of time on my schedules, I had five airborne babies in my airplane," he said. "I've been in aviation for 30 years; I had two different air services. I had a total of 50 airplanes and covered the whole Interior. ... The one thing that I'm very, very proud of is, I never lost a pilot."

Now that they've reestablished contact, the two old friends will stay in touch. "As long as we can," Mork said. "There's not much time left."


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