WASHINGTON, D.C. — World War II was a bloody, dirty mess, but if you were lucky enough to survive, it was also a heck of an adventure.
Just ask Leroy “Dusty” Bourque of Livingston. On the day after his 17th birthday in June 1943, the young man from Omaha, Neb., enlisted in the Navy.
Between boot camp and training for duty as a radioman and gunner, Bourque would soon spend time in Idaho, Tennessee, Florida, Massachusetts, California and Hawaii — all this before actually joining the fight.
Then the real adventure started. He flew on 39 combat flights, one of which ended up in the ocean because a bomb was hung up on the underside of the plane and they couldn’t land on an aircraft carrier.
Bourque and the other crewmen were plucked from the drink by a picket destroyer and, after five days, returned to their carrier.
They got from one ship to the other via an early version of a zip-line, strapped to a chair attached to a cable hung between the two vessels, propelled by a kind of pulley.
At one point both ships rolled inward on a wave, plunging Bourque into the sea.
“As soon as they rolled back, I just popped up like a cork,” much to the amusement of sailors on both ships, he said.
In 1945, his squadron was decommissioned and he was sent to the East Coast to join a new one.
He was on a weekend furlough to New York City when V-J Day — Victory over Japan Day — was declared.
“It was like New Year’s Eve, only more boisterous,” he said. “I almost missed roll call” the next day.
Bourque had another adventure this week, visiting Washington, D.C., on Sunday and Monday with 83 other World War II veterans, courtesy of the Big Sky Honor Flight.
Asked how his first visit to the capital stacked up against his wartime experiences, Bourque said, “It’s right up there, for sure.”
As a bonus, Bourque found his grandson waiting for him Sunday at Dulles International Airport. Tim Dorman drove up from Tampa, Fla., to surprise his grandfather.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Bourque said. “It was a total surprise, a tremendous surprise.”
For all the veterans, the highlight of the two-day trip to Washington was a visit to the World War II Memorial on Monday morning.
It was an especially emotional visit for Bill Schultz, an 87-year-old former Seabee who was born in North Dakota and now lives in Billings.
He brought along a small photograph of his brother, Donald, and left it below an incised marker for Corregidor on the Pacific side of the World War II Monument.
Donald was on the island fortress of Corregidor in the Philippines when he was captured by the Japanese. He endured three brutal years of captivity on the Japanese mainland and weighed just 85 pounds when the war ended.
Donald died in 1982, and it was his brother’s goal to leave that tribute to him at the monument.
The monument also brought back a lot of memories to Dean Elliott, who was born in Billings’ St. Vincent Hospital the year it opened, in 1923.
He was 19 when he was drafted into the Army in 1944. After basic training, he was shipped out to the Pacific island of Okinawa.
“It was the last major battle of the war,” Elliott said. “It was very deadly.”
The island was interlaced with caves and fortified positions. The troops could advance only by winning every inch of ground.
Elliott’s company captured a commanding position known as Conical Hill, which broke the back of the Japanese forces and resulted in an Allied victory.
“The Japs didn’t pay attention to what they were doing for a few minutes, and we went up the hill,” he said matter-of-factly.
A few years after the war, Elliott wrote down a personal account of the fighting on Okinawa, to give to his family and friends.
He called the memoir “38 Days,” for the number of consecutive days he served on the front lines. Elliott said they advanced 12 or 13 miles in those 38 days, a distance that would have been nothing in the European fighting.
He suffered no combat wounds, but he was sent to a military hospital in San Francisco with “just general exhaustion” and infectious hepatitis.
He’s not sure why he survived.
“I had bullets come so close to my ear that it didn’t just hurt, it pained. Yeah, the good Lord was on my side,” he said.
Elliott went back to Okinawa six or seven years ago. He climbed to the top of Conical Hill again, but it seemed a lot steeper this time. A couple of Marines who happened to be there pulled him up the final ascent.
“I don’t think I could have made it without them,” he said, which was fitting. In the battle for Okinawa, the fighting troops were about evenly split between the Army and the Marine Corps.
Elliot went on to do big things after the war. He earned degrees in chemistry and petroleum engineering, and after a few years in the oil business he went to work for the McDonnell Douglas Corp. as an aerospace engineer. One of his jobs was working on the design of Skylab, the United States’ first space station, sent into orbit in 1973.
“I helped launch the darned thing,” he said.