Corporal June Haigh enlisted in the Marines when he was 19 years old. His two-and-a-half years of service included 36 days on Iwo Jima. Sergeant Louie Day enlisted in the Army right out of high school. The two men were part of the sixth Montana Big Sky Honor Flight Trip to Washington, D.C. in early September.
Montana Honor Flight out of Billings serves as a hub of the national Honor Flight program. The latest trip departed from Billings on Sept. 8. The flight served 84 Montana World War II veterans. They toured the many monuments and memorials of the nation’s capital in 24 hours.
A Billings native, Day’s family history of military experience spurred him to serve among a few other reasons. He said he was impressed with the precision and dedication of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
“They take an oath to never drink, get arrested, swear in public or fight for the time they are guarding the tomb and even after,” Day said.
Haigh said the group’s first stop at the Lincoln Memorial was memorable. After seeing hundreds of photos of the memorial and learning Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in school, seeing the memorial in person took him back to his beginning.
“Most of the trip brought back memories. I knew it would,” he said.
The beginning of Haigh’s Honor Flight trip dates back to when his service began on Jan. 19, 1944. With two older brothers in the Army and Air Force, he enlisted in the Marines but was not deployed immediately. Haigh received a deferment to work on a ranch for a while. When his boss forgot to renew the deferment for another six months, Haigh had to leave to serve.
The 5th Marine Division took two weeks to travel to Iwo Jima and went on to the southern Japanese island of Kyushu after combat there.
“We had set up a plan for invasion, but ended up occupying it as the war was ending,” Haigh said. “I destroyed ammunition supplies and patrolled a Japanese civil prison.”
The Honor Flight group also visited the Iwo Jima Memorial. The iconic image of five marines and a Navy Hospital Corpsman raising a large flag atop Mount Suribachi was one not new to Haigh. The Marines who raised the flag were part of the 5th Marine Division’s 28th Regiment – a neighboring group on the tiny island of Iwo Jima. Haigh recalled an intense first six days on the Japanese island. His time there included off and on combat in which he was not always on the front line. When his Regiment was relieved they were able to go back into a safer area, rest, write letters, and also picked up a lot of abandoned rifles.
Day, who lives in Sheridan, served as a Motor Sergeant with the Infantry Regiment in the Pacific – Philippines and New Guinea. He said he remembers communicating with some of New Guinea’s tribal members, asking them if they had seen any Japanese soldiers in the area. He said they provided him and others with useful information in their Pidgin English.
“I was never wounded, but had malaria twice,” Day said. “I was part of quite a few beachhead landings.”
Another memorable stop was the World War II Memorial on the National Mall. Each state is marked with a large marble column in the memorial that has been open to the public now for nine years.
“I could hardly believe the large number of people there,” Haigh said. “It was overwhelming.”
Never wounded during battle, Haigh said his years of service were a good experience from which he made some good friends and really grew up. Originally from Three Forks, Haigh has lived in Ennis for 41 years with his wife Vi. He said his training on the big island of Hawaii and his time on the troop ships headed to Japan were fun because they were new experiences like being on the ocean and learning how to march under military direction.
“The best part was having my family welcome me home,” Haigh said of his return from Washington, D.C. He recalled riding the escalator down, lifting his head and seeing the signs his family had made through the see of hundreds in the airport.
Members of the Honor Flight were greeted at most of their stops by thankful strangers and some elected officials like U.S. Representative Steve Daines, U.S. Senator Jon Tester, and Montana’s Lieutenant Governor John Walsh.
In addition to the hearty handshakes, Haigh and Day also received letters from family members and students from Montana while they were in Washington, D.C. The students expressed profound thanks for inspiring a new generation to possibly join the military and never forget what these veterans contributed to the country.
“It makes you feel really good,” Day said of the appreciation for his two years of service.
Both Haigh and Day ended up working for the U.S. Soil Conservation Service after serving the country. The two reconnected on the plane and also spent time with another veteran they worked with who was on the trip, which is at no or minimal cost to the veterans.
For more information about Big Sky Honor Flight, call (406) 690-4613.