Beer. Lots of beer. That was the crutch a 21-year-old enlisted member of the U.S. Army Air Corps and his still-wet-behind-the-ears comrades relied on to get them through those deadly days of World War II.
"We were a bunch of drunks and we stayed drunk," said Al Wade, who is now 93. "We were scared."
They had good reason.
On Dec. 7, 1941 while Wade, a flying sergeant, was flying a B-17 from the West Coast into Hawaii, his plane was hit when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Wade was forced to crash land at Hickham field. He was the only survivor.
He has no appetite for telling war stories or dwelling on those days. The subject clearly sets him on edge. Outwardly, Wade said he feels compelled to say he's glad he fought for his country. But in his heart it's a different story.
"Our government knew what was going to happen and they didn't care," Wade said. "I'm not proud of what happened in that war. A lot of people got killed. It was hell in the air. We were sitting ducks and our government simply didn't care."
He entered the service a healthy, young man and left injured, struggling to walk after surviving several airplane crashes. Despite his residual anger at the government, he would not hesitate to help the United States now if he could.
"If I could go I'd go right now and drop an atomic bomb on the whole Iraq business," he said.
Wade has added his name to the list of World War II veterans hoping to make the inaugural journey of Big Sky Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., to see the World War II memorial.
"It will help a lot of people to see it," Wade said. "Everything you can do for the veteran should be done. The veteran should be treated as a special man with special privileges because we put our lives on the line without reservation and did what we were told."
A Montana chapter of the Honor Flight Network was activated in October to honor the state's World War II veterans. The purpose of Big Sky Honor Flight is to take World War II veterans to the memorial free of charge. The chartered flight will cost about $150,000 and will be underwritten with donations.
Bert Gigoux, a member of the Big Sky Honor Flight's board of directors, said about $18,000 has been raised to date. "We are definitely short of money."
With its Toys for Tots drive now finished, the West End Walmart will begin an all-out push to support the effort, said Flo McMasters, the store's community events coordinator. The Walmart store, which has a history of supporting veteran issues, including the veterans cemetery in Laurel, has pledged to host bake sales, silent auctions and barbecue lunches to raise money for the trip.
Walmart also is helping organizers apply for grants available through its corporation. In addition, it will distribute donation containers in its Billings stores.
To date, 67,000 veterans nationwide have traveled to the capital to see the World War II Memorial that dedicated in May 2004. Thirty-three states now have the Honor Flight program.
Some 16.1 million Americans served in uniform during World War II. The youngest of those veterans are in now their mid-80s. There are still 18,000 World War II veterans in Montana. Based on 2008 statistics, World War II veterans are dying nationally at the rate of about 1,000 per day.
The plan is to take a group of veterans to the Memorial every April until every World War II veteran in Montana has made the trip.