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Making the Roughrider Honor Flight . . . World War II veteran
Jim Hillestad of Kenmare, who saw action in India and Burma as one
of the first American radar operators, and his daughter Debbie Oland of Phoenix, AZ, pay their respects at the Veterans Memorial in the city park.
Editor’s note: This story is the first in a series of interviews with area WWII veterans who made the final Roughrider Honor Flight from
When the fifth and final Roughrider Honor Flight departed from
Hillestad was joined by daughter Debbie Oland, now of
“I never would have believed my dad would have gone, especially at age 91,” answered
Hillestad wanted to go on one of the Roughrider Honor Flights after hearing about the trip from a friend in
Even though he had talked with other veterans who made the all-expense paid overnight visit on previous Roughrider Honor Flights, he was still surprised by the deluxe service. “We had to be at the airport at 6:30 that morning,” he said. “They issued us a jacket, cap and T-shirt and told us that was the uniform for us to wear. As soon as we got on the plane, they served breakfast.”
“And that was the beginning of the royalty treatment,” added
That special trip included greetings from North Dakota Senator John Hoeven, bus tours around the city to see various federal buildings and other landmarks, a trip to the Mall where the group stopped at the Lincoln Memorial, the Korean Memorial and other sites and a banquet at the Hyatt Regency Hotel where they stayed.
Hillestad and Oland got up early on Saturday to ride the tram across the city and go to
“There are 330,000 people buried there right now,” added
Father and daughter agreed the World War II Memorial, also toured on Saturday, was one of the highlights of the quick trip. Hillestad described it as beautiful. “I liked that [Memorial], because it was mine,” he said.
“It was emotional for me,”
Hillestad laughed, though, as he talked about one moment at the Memorial, when
“I told them, ‘I’m an old Norwegian,’” he said. “‘Oh, I like to yump around a little bit.’”
Fortunately, the guards laughed, too, and told him he had to do his “yumping around” somewhere else.
WWII radar operator
After spending a year at the Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Kenmare and six months at one in Miles City, MT, Hillestad served nearly four years in the war with a special company of the Signal Corps attached to the U.S. Air Force. At age 21, he was inducted February 6, 1942, and went to basic training in
His company was stationed at Drew Field near
He earned two battle stars in
His company set up the radar that American pilots used to navigate the foggy valleys they flew on routes from
Even though his position supposedly kept him out of any direct fighting, Hillestad had a foxhole ready if he needed it. That situation arose one day when he was relaxing on his cot after a full day’s work and a Japanese plane roared overhead. “I leaped from that bed to that foxhole!” he said, laughing.
Years later, he met a WWII veteran who had worked loading the American planes flying those specific routes. When Hillestad told him he’d been a radar operator in
Hillestad returned to the
Hillestad spent a few hours getting processed at a camp in
His voice shook as he described riding up the tracks in the Des Lacs valley. “I remember when we came to
Hillestad had called his family from
After Hillestad returned to North Dakota, he worked for the Farmers Union Shipping Association, buying and trucking cattle, then operated an artificial livestock breeding operation for the next 18 years before starting his antique business.
He married Sylvia Peterson of rural Tolley on June 20, 1949, after first spotting her watching him during the 75th Jubilee parade in Kenmare. The couple raised three children of their own and a foster daughter.
While Hillestad and Oland were thrilled with everything they saw in
“We had an aisle we had to walk down and everybody wanted to shake your hand,” he said. “The
Former Kenmare resident Marvin Gravesen, who visited
Roughrider Honor Flight (RRHF) led its fifth and final group of World War II (WWII) veterans to
“When I agreed to chair this effort, I knew there would be a first flight and I was pretty sure there would be a second. I was amazed when we began organizing the fifth flight,” said Kevin Cramer, RRHF committee chair. “We made the commitment to do this as long as there was a local WWII veteran able and ready to go.”
The WWII memorial pays homage to the 16 million Americans who served during the campaign. The monument was not completed until 2004, and most of the war’s veterans never had the opportunity to visit the site. Of the 69,000 men and women from
The cost of each previous RRHF trip was approximately $165,000, all funded by corporate and private sector donations. Because of rising fuel prices and the size of the final flight, the cost approached $200,000.
Hillestad was grateful for the opportunity to go and the contributions made by so many people on behalf of the veterans and their escorts. Even a week after returning from the whirlwind trip, he was still talking over the new memories he made with his daughter. “That was my first trip to D.C. and my first trip on a big airplane, too,” he said with a grin. “There was so much going on, you didn’t have time to think!”