I’m going to deviate a bit today from a quilt related blog to one about service—specifically military service.

I’m going to deviate a bit today from a quilt related blog to one about service—specifically military service. Back in 1954, during the early days of the Cold War, the Army was tasked to investigate the possibility of installing an early warning system (DEW) in Alaska that would let the United States know about an air invasion over the Arctic Circle by the Soviet Union. Army civil engineers and helicopter pilots went to Alaska to survey and plan just how this would work. In late 1954 they were tasked with installing this system beginning in the spring of 1955.

Best friends First Lieutenants BJ Fleming and Howard Smith were two such young men in service to their country. Both were engineers, fixed wing, and helicopter pilots. Both had been to Alaska surveying and flying in 1954. Lt Smith had been due to discharge from the Army in January of 1955 but was asked to stay on until the end of June to help with the project in Alaska. So he shipped his pregnant wife back to her parents in Pennsylvania from San Francisco, planning to join her by the end of June after this final job with the Army in Alaska. In fact, he flew one of the first Otter fixed wing planes to get to Alaska that spring. He recalled the details of that harrowing trip in a letter to his wife.

Lt Howard B. Smith

1Lt Howard B. Smith



One of the first six Otters flown to Alaska in 1955

On June 20th he was to head back to San Francisco to be discharged from service and from there fly home to his waiting wife just in time for the birth of their second child due on the fourth of July. They were so excited about this new child as they had lost an infant two years previously. On that day, his CO asked if he could stay one more day for a mission to Point Barrow. How could he say no?

After dropping off a fellow engineer and some supplies at Point Barrow, he was on his way back to the base camp in Umiat, Alaska anticipating his long awaited trip home to start a new life. His trip was tragically cut short– an arctic owl startled and flew into his rotor. 1Lt Smith survived the crash but not his injuries, dying four days later in Fairbanks, Alaska and four days before the birth of his daughter. He arrived home on time, but not as my mother expected. And so I never knew my father.

BJ Fleming, and his wife Sabra honored my father and kept in touch with me through letters and gifts all my life. They fleshed out an image of my father for me by virtue of their devotion and stories of their times together. I finally met them when I was a young mother myself. They are very dear to me to this day—another set of parents in so many ways.

The Flemings

BJ and Sabra Fleming around 2003

I’ve been told by some who would know that my husband is very much like my father. I wonder how that could be since I never knew him but I also understand why my mother mourned him until the day she died.

My husband went into the service just like my father. Unlike my father, he made a career of his service. Our two sons have both served. All three are vets. My older son did his service in the Navy and got out, and my youngest son is still in the Army.


My oldest served in the Navy.

My three guys

My husband and two sons, all who are or have been in service.

Now here’s the twist. My father was a civil engineer and a helicopter pilot. My oldest son is a civil engineer and my youngest a helicopter pilot. So, my father lives on through his grandsons, continuing our family’s service to this beloved country. I think he’d be proud of them. I know I am—of all four.

Please honor all who serve on this day and every day.