On Nov. 2, 1986, almost 30 years ago, a Coast Guard HH-3 helicopter (No. 1473) and its crew of six were flying to Akhiok to medevac a man with a head injury. The weather was horrible: strong winds and heavy rain. Air Station Kodiak lost contact with the helicopter at about 9:30 p.m. The helicopter had crashed in the side of a mountain, killing all six people.
I thought about this tragedy recently when two volunteers from the Spouses’ Association of Kodiak stopped by to pick up a donation for the upcoming 2016 Stiles-Clark Auction. After a while I excused myself and returned with a three-ring binder of my early published articles and photos. I turned to an article called “Absentee Santa.”
It’s a story I wrote for Alaska Magazine after traveling with the Coast Guard on an HH-3 helicopter to several villages around the island to deliver gifts for the Santa to the Villages program. I believe it was December 1985. The editors loved the idea of the Coast Guard delivering toys from Texas, mittens from Minnesota, and other gifts to kids living in far-flung villages.
I took many rolls of film that day — pictures of the crew handing out candy canes and gifts, kids on four-wheelers — but the photo I liked best was taken while we were on the ground, preparing for the next stop. Santa Claus is looking over the shoulder of a pilot inspecting the landing gear. In the story I submitted to the magazine I quoted Jane Clark, who played a major role assembling gifts from around the country. “The program actually was started in 1974 by a couple of pilots and their wives,” she said. “One of the fliers, Lt. Jim Stiles, absolutely loved children and wanted to do something for the kinds in the villages for Christmas.”
“Absentee Santa” finally ran in the December 1987 issue. I flipped through the pages and found the story. But rather than being pleased to see my photo printed as a two-page spread, chills shot through me: Emblazoned on the helicopter were the numbers “1473,” meaning that between the time I’d accompanied the Coast Guard to deliver Christmas cheer to the time the story was published, the same helicopter I’d flown in that day (No. 1473) had crashed, killing all six crew members.
I’m sharing this story because there are not enough words to describe all the good deeds that the U.S. Coast Guard performs in our community and beyond. Nearly 42,000 men and women are actively serving in the Coast Guard with about 1,300 stationed in Kodiak. Throughout the year, there are many ways we can show our appreciation and support, from welcoming new families to attending annual events.
One such event, is the Stiles-Clark Auction, as I mentioned above, to be held Saturday, Oct. 1 at the Golden Anchor. It’s an evening of food, fun and charitable giving. Money raised helps support local Kodiak charities and fund the Santa to the Villages Program. Please show your support by attending the dinner and participating in the auction. Doors open at 6 p.m. with the auction at 7 pm. To purchase tickets, visit sakodiak.tofinoauctions.com/stilesclark16.
Thank you, Kodiak for being such a caring community.
Marion Owen is an organic gardener, photographer and writer living in Kodiak.