On Monday, local World War II veteran Morris Watson got the opportunity to take to the skies in a throwback plane and fly over town thanks to the nonprofit volunteer-based organization Dream Flights that gives rides to veterans in the older model planes.
In the 1940s, Watson defended the United States as a rifleman during World War II. He served overseas for two years before being honorably discharged. Eventually, he made his way to Longview, where he worked at Reynolds Metals’ aluminum plant for 33 years until retiring.
Watson, originally from Arkansas, then traveled the country with his wife, Evelyn, in their fifth-wheel trailer until Evelyn’s passing in 2005.
Now Watson, 99, resides at Canterbury Park in Longview, but earlier this week he was given the opportunity to get out and do something that would undoubtedly make his neighbors at Canterbury a little jealous.
Watson arrived at the Southwest Washington Regional Airport in Kelso on Monday with a bit of fanfare. Plenty of his fellow residents had shown up to watch him fly, enough that Canterbury even sent a rooter bus full of residents to the airport.
“Anyone who knows Morris, loves Morris,”Jeanne Devitt, Executive Director of Canterbury Park
“Anyone who knows Morris, loves Morris,” said Jeanne Devitt, executive director of Canterbury Park. “So that’s why the crowd was there and there was so much joy. He’s just well-loved and everyone was cheering him on.”
Once he was there, it wasn’t long until it was time for him to board the plane. The two-seater PT17 Boeing Stearman looks like a blast from the past, but the bright red paint job and sponsor logos covering it provide a semi-modern upgrade. Despite the updated look, the plane still closely resembles those used in WWII, making it an era-appropriate for Watson to visit with his plane ride. The Stearman biplanes were used to train military pilots in the 1930s and 1940s.
His pilot, Molly Littlefield, was no stranger to Stearman aircraft. Her father was an instructor during WWII and purchased a plane during an Army surplus sale, that she learned to fly on at the age of 19. Littlefield went on to become the 23rd female pilot in the history of United Airlines before her retirement two years ago.
Now, Littlefield flies for Dream Flights, giving opportunities for veterans to go for a flight and reminisce about the past.
“We’re very privileged to be able to fly with the World War II vets,” Littlefield said.
Once everything was set, Littlefield and her assistant helped Watson board the front seat of the plane. He was given a head covering and some protective ear muffs before Littlefield started the engine and the propeller began to spin as Watson looked out to his friends in attendance, grinning from ear-to-ear. Littlefield worked her way down the runway and soon went airborne, generating a roar of applause from all in attendance.
Littlefield and Watson flew around the Longview-Kelso area for about 15 minutes before making their way back to the airport. While in the air, Watson made a callout that she had a special passenger in her plane.
“This is Dream Flight 986, giving a ride to a World War II veteran,” she said over the radio.
A U.S. Coast Guard vessel in the area made sure to provide the proper response.
“Tell your veteran we salute him,” the reply came through the headset.
After flying over town and getting the bird’s eye view of Cowlitz County, Watson was brought back down to Earth, where his friends, family and supporters were waiting to see him.
Watson, a man of few words in his older years, did more than enough talking with the big smile that adorned his face as he exited the plane. When asked about how the flight was, his response also came with a grin.
“Windy,” he said.
Watson said that it was a nice flight and that he wasn’t nervous going into it. He thanked Littlefield and all those who made the flight possible.
After the flight, Watson was gifted a commemorative hat that was signed by Littlefield with a note thanking him for his service. Then it was Watson’s turn to do the signing as he was asked to sign the tail of the plane alongside where other Dream Flight recipients had already done so. After the run of flights has been completed and the canvas is full of signatures, it will be removed and proudly displayed to honor the veterans that were fortunate enough to take to the air one more time.
Eventually, Watson made his way back to Canterbury Park — after posing for pictures with friends and family, of course. Devitt said the windswept smile could still be seen days later.
Watson was taken aloft as a passenger on a similar flight in 2018, but the logistics of getting things figured out this time were tricky.
The original plan was to put Watson on a private plane to Bozeman, Mont., and he would go on the flight over there. However, plans changed just a few days before he was scheduled to leave. The new plan called for the plane to come to him in Kelso, allowing for all of his friends from Canterbury to join him, Devitt noted. After one final delay last weekend that pushed the flight to Monday, everything was finally ready to go.
Littlefield has given 10 flights to veterans for Dream Flights since joining the organization after her retirement. She said she saw the same sort of reactions with Watson that she had with other veterans once they get in the air.
“I see them looking around, I see their smile,” she said. “There’s a little bit of apprehension getting in, but then when they get out, they have more energy, they’re more alive.”
Littlefield said it was important to honor the World War II veterans now, before it’s too late. She added that the youngest veteran she has flown came in at a spry 95-years-old.
Devitt was happy for Watson and said he usually doesn’t enjoy being the center of attention, but he was willing to make an exception for the chance to fly. She said that they may try to get Watson up in the air again after seeing what he put on his bucket list when residents wrote them down a few years ago.
“An item on Morris’ bucket list is to take a helicopter ride,” Devitt said, “We haven’t made that happen yet and we’d still like to.”