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Cloquet man takes flight of honor

Harris Stillwell stands proudly next to the Minnesota pillar at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. while there with last week's Honor Flight Northland.1 / 2
Harris Stillwell was just 22 years old when he was released from the Navy following World War II (at left), along with Cloquet's Toivo Kiuttu (center) and Joseph Bahen (right).2 / 2

When last week's Honor Flight Northland was flying over Cleveland on the way to Washington, D.C., "mail call" was held on the plane. The 98 veterans on board all received packets of letters containing thanks and congratulations from school children as well as from their own family members.

"I had never dreamed of anything like that," attested Cloquet native and World War II veteran Harris Stillwell. "The tears just flowed. I'd never been thanked before, and all of a sudden here came all these thank you letters for what we did, what we stood for and freedom."

An Apple Valley fourth-grader wrote, "I want to thank you for serving our country. Thank you for sacrificing your time with your family at home to serve our country during World War II. We know that you helped many people such as other injured soldiers during your service. We know that we have freedom today because you helped to keep our country and other countries free. Thank you for helping to stop Hitler, Germany and Japan from taking over the world. We are able to go anywhere we want and we can play safely outside because of you and other service people. I hope you have a good, safe trip to Washington."

That was just the beginning of what was to be a very emotional and unforgettable journey for Stillwell who, at the age of 88, never thought he'd live to see that day when he and so many fellow soldiers were honored in such an eloquent and thoughtful way.

 Stillwell had been encouraged to consider going on the day-long trip by an acquaintance from Superior who had gone on the first flight last spring.

"I had heard about it, but I wasn't quite sure what it would be like at my age, since my walking is not very good," he explained. "But my friend told me, 'Harris, it was just a great, wonderful trip.'"

Stillwell decided to sign up for the trip and was accepted.

The plane was due to leave Duluth at 6:30 a.m. on Oct. 4. Stillwell left home at 2:50 a.m. and picked up his assigned guardian, Jim Gulbranson of Proctor.

"He was the guardian for me throughout the whole trip, because it was necessary for him to push me in a wheelchair to get to where I wanted to go," explained Stillwell.

Stillwell said all of the needs of the veterans - some of whom were in their 90s - were anticipated and


"Gold Cross [emergency staff] was even on board the plane in case anyone got injured or sick," said Stillwell. "If someone had a heart attack aboard, the people and equipment were there to take care of it."

They landed in Washington D.C. about 9:30 a.m., where they were met by three buses, a police escort, a band playing and a large complement of soldiers all lined up to greet them.

The first place they went was the World War II Memorial, where they were guests of honor along with three other Honor Flights from around the country.

"You just stand there and look, and there were all sorts of grown men and women there crying," observed Stillwell. "We were looking at 4,047 gold stars on a board, and each one of them represented 1,000 soldiers killed during the war. It's outstanding. It's just beautiful."

The group of local veterans also toured the Vietnam, Korean and nurse's memorials. 

"When you think of these memorials, what they stand for and what these people have done to fight for freedom - you can't emphasize enough how lucky we are. I wouldn't have enlisted if I didn't want to fight for freedom and what it stands for."

Even Eighth District Congressman Chip Cravaak was on hand to greet the local veterans.

"He dropped what he was doing at the legislature and came over to be with us," said Stillwell.

The plane departed for Minnesota around 7:30 p.m. and got back into Duluth about 10 p.m.

"We had a big celebration after we arrived with 100-200 people on hand to greet us," said Stillwell. "I think every police car and policeman in Duluth were there, a band was playing and there were even bagpipes. People were thanking us for what we'd done and shaking our hands. It was a long day, but it was well worth it. I'd never have made it there


To be recognized and celebrated in this way was an unexpected highlight in Stillwell's life, though his own role in World War II was also quite


After graduating from Cloquet High School in 1940, he enlisted in the Civilian Conservation Corps, stationed on the Sawbill Trail at Tofte and later transferred to Fort Snelling. After a year, he got a job with Thompson Electric in Cloquet and later at Northwest Paper. He enlisted in the Navy in January 1943.

"My mother drove me, Wally Johanson and Elwood Ferguson to Duluth so we could catch a bus to Minneapolis to enlist in the service," he related. "In Minneapolis, we went straight to the Federal Building, where we were sworn in. Wally and I were lucky enough to get into the Navy and were sent to Farragut, Idaho, for basic training. I was in charge of the train all the way out there and I lost 15 pounds trying to keep those guys aboard."

Stillwell was 19 years old at the time, and it was his first experience being away from home. He said he enjoyed the camp and the training, however, and he came out the top student in gunnery and was asked if he'd stay and teach school there. Before he got to do that, however, he got orders to go to San Diego for advanced training. After six weeks, he was selected to teach electric hydraulics for the next year.

"Probably, that saved my life," he reflected, "because otherwise I would have been right in the heat of the action in the big battles such as Midway, though eventually I got into plenty of it anyway."

After his year was up, Stillwell was assigned to the USS Corvus AKA 26 at Providence, Rhode Island, where his ship was put into commission on Nov. 20, 1944, with 325 sailors aboard. He was a second class gunner's mate and he was put in charge of all of the guns aboard ship.

Their ship sailed down through the Panama Canal and then up to Alameda, Calif., where they loaded up with aircraft, equipment and supplies and took off for the Pacific


The military staff on the Corvus completed 30 missions, and the ship travelled 56,000 miles that year.

"Mail was hard to catch up with us," said Stillwell. "We didn't have computers, and we didn't have any means of communication to talk with home other than by mail. Our mail was censored so if we said something in the mail that we shouldn't have, it was neatly cut out with a knife or a razor blade. We looked forward to mail when it came, but it didn't come very often."

One of the crew's high profile missions included the invasion of


"I was there on my birthday, and I wrote home to my parents and said, 'Pray for us on my birthday,'" recalled Stillwell. "That was when we got to Okinawa and our action began, though we had been under fire from torpedoes all along."

They were in Okinawa 13 days, fighting against the Kamikazes.

"Our forward 'forty' [gun] shot down a Kamikaze that was headed for our command ship, so we saved the command ship from being hit," said Stillwell. "The Kamikazes were coming out of the skies like flies. They were everywhere. They'd come in on top of clouds and dive right for the ship they wanted to hit. My cousin's ship got hit twice, but we were fortunate that we didn't get hit. Every night we would go back out to sea and get away from the shore."

The cargo they carried was the first to be unloaded in the invasion of Naha Beach.

"There were Japanese strapping themselves to the ship and blowing up the propellers and we had to stand guard with machine guns to make sure our ship wasn't hit," he said.

When they received orders to go back to San Francisco, stopping in the Hawaiian Islands on the way to have new engines installed on the ship, most of the crew members were mystified as to just what was going on.

"There was a lot of scuttlebutt going around about what was going on, but we didn't really know," admitted Stillwell.

As it turned out, the new engines gave the Corvus more speed, which was important to its next mission, though none of the crew yet knew what it was.

After a brief stop in San Francisco, the ship took on personnel from the 20th Air Force and equipment in Seattle and departed for Tinian. Upon their arrival, all of the other ships pulled out of the harbor so the Corvus could be unloaded. Once again, all was cloaked in secrecy, as outside stevedores were brought in to unload the ship's mystery cargo. They then embarked for Guadalcanal.

"En route to Guadalcanal, the Indianapolis crossed our bow," related Stillwell. "They had unloaded in Tinian before we did, and shortly after we saw them, the Indianapolis was sunk by torpedoes from a Japanese submarine with some 1,000 men losing their lives."

Later, while the crew of the Corvus was in the China Sea, they learned that on Aug. 6 the United States had dropped some sort of "new" bomb, though the men didn't know yet what it was. Then on Aug. 9 a second bomb was dropped. It wasn't confirmed until two months later that the cargo they had been carrying had a direct bearing on the fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

"We didn't carry the plutonium," he said. "That was carried by the Indianapolis, which was later sunk. The plutonium was wrapped in lead on the ship's deck, and since a cruiser doesn't have storage area, they couldn't carry the equipment to put it together. The people from the 20th Air Force, who got off in Tinian, were the ones who put it together."

After the U.S. dropped the bombs and the peace was signed, Stillwell and his unit went on to the Philippines and picked up soldiers and equipment and then on to northern Japan. They were then told to return to California. By then Stillwell had enough points to get out of the


"After I got out, I had $300 in my pocket, I had malaria, I didn't have a job, and I had a wife and baby I hadn't seen in 16 months," said Stillwell. "Finally, I got home and things started to gel for me. I got a job and built a home in Cloquet."

He worked his way up to supervisor of operations at Northwest Paper/Potlatch, working in data processing systems and programming until his retirement in 1982.

He has now been retired for 29 years and is still living in Cloquet.

"I have a wonderful wife, Marge, and things have been really good," Stillwell said with a smile. "I couldn't ask for anything better."

Last week's Honor Flight Northland trip was frosting on the cake for Stillwell. He said it was an experience of a lifetime.

"I'm glad I got to go," he said. "It's something I'll never forget. It was beautiful."

And as for any words of advice for anyone who might be considering going on the next Honor Flight Northland trip scheduled for May 2012? 

"Go." he said. "Go and enjoy!"