Arthur Ashe once said that “true heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but to serve others at whatever cost.”
Beloved Cogir resident Earl Van Valkenberg spent more than 37 years in the military, mostly behind the scenes, always in service to others. But it turns out Van Valkenberg’s heroism wasn’t short on drama.
Van, as he prefers to be called, joined the military straight out of high school in Vancouver, Washington. He served in the Navy during World War II, and later joined the Air Force Reserve. A master of military communications, Van was given one of the most prestigious posts an airman can receive when he was assigned to serve aboard Air Force One.
As communications chief on Air Force One, Van served Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Van facilitated flawless and readily-available communication between VIP passengers and people on the ground whenever needed. Some of his more memorable flights include groundbreaking trips to China while serving during the Nixon administration.
Van’s exceptional understanding of communication systems led to a role in designing different versions of the jet’s communications center, which at one point featured 85 phones and three fax machines.
Van’s most dramatic and harrowing experience, however, comes from a transatlantic flight in 1962 that put his heroism and courage to the test.
While serving in a Reserve Unit Van was assigned to the crew of a transport aircraft, the C-119 Flying Boxcar, which was to return to the United States departing from Chateauroux, France.
The plane was inspected and deemed satisfactory for the flight, but not long into the journey one engine began to fail necessitating an emergency landing. The result of the subsequent inspection was a complete engine replacement.
Again the plane was inspected and deemed flight-ready. The aircraft flew farther this time before experiencing engine trouble once again. The crew landed the plane and the engine was again replaced in its entirety.
The third time’s a charm, as they say, and this time when the aircraft was well-enough into the flight the crew allowed themselves to feel the excitement of returning home to the United States of America.
That is until it was discovered that the #2 engine was engulfed in flames. Extinguishers managed to shrink the fire but it was not entirely out. The pilots decided to take a dive to allow the high-speed air to smother the remaining flames. It worked. But now the heavily-loaded aircraft was relying on one engine.
The plane was struggling.
The crew decided to toss out some heavy items. Most of the cargo was tightly secured with aluminum straps but the plane was not equipped with any tools to loosen the bolts holding everything in place. Van’s survival kit held a small wire saw, giving the crew their only hope. They frantically loosened cargo and began to toss life-rafts and other survival gear off the aircraft as quickly as possible.
At this point the plane was flying at 92 knots. The only operable engine would stall at 89. Now the crew was forced to lighten the load further. They tossed the loading ramps, ropes, chains, briefcases full of charts, their personal luggage, and ultimately a door torn from the latrine. Every ounce counted!
The crew considered parachuting into the one remaining life-raft onboard but their survival rate in the icy waters was slim. There had to be another way. Thankfully before much more hope was lost, a British Air Sea Rescue aircraft came into sight. The rescue craft advised the crew to dump their remaining life-raft and change course toward Newfoundland.
Sputtering into Argentia Newfoundland, the plane was safely grounded and airmen poured out of the hangar to enthusiastically greet the courageous and quick-thinking crew.
Van’s part in saving the crew and the C-119 was rewarded with the Air Force Accommodation Medal and the promise of a long and wonderful life spanning ahead of him.
Van will turn 94-years old in a few weeks. We are honored to have him as a resident of Cogir of Vancouver. This Veterans Day we give him our most sincere gratitude for the service he provided to our beautiful country.
Van, you took great care of the crews and the presidents you served. We hope to return the favor in every way we can. Happy birthday and happy Veterans Day to you.
Happy Veterans Day to Cogir Senior Living resident Earl Van Valkenberg!